“The pictures nevertheless recognize… the distance between public mourning and that of the principals in this drama. Out of his deliberately limited resources, [Warhol] creates a nuance and subtlety of response that is his alone, precisely because he has not sought technically to surpass his raw material … In his particular dramatization of medium, Warhol found room for a dramatization of feeling and even a kind of history painting.”
— (T. Crow, “Saturday Disasters: Trace and Reference in Early Warhol,” October Files: Andy Warhol, Cambridge, 2001, p. 55)
Along with millions of television viewers around the globe, Andy Warhol witnessed the devastating events surrounding the assassination of President John F. Kennedy unfold through mass media outlets. Images of Jackie Kennedy saturated newspapers and TV broadcasts both on the morning of November 22, 1963, moments before JFK was shot, and in mourning, following his death. The assassination of JFK marked the first time in history when a national disaster would be played on an endless televisual loop around the globe. Warhol’s Jackie, 1964, is a tightly cropped reproduction of a photograph from JFK’s funeral, which took place in Arlington, VA two days later. The president’s assassination came to represent the death of idealism and hope, heralding a slowly emerging, worldwide despair and cynicism. The widowed First Lady, once the muse of the Kennedy administration, now served as a symbol of grief for the nation. Within a short time of President Kennedy's assassination, Warhol began using images of the first widow in his art.
The present lot features the newly widowed First Lady at her husband’s funeral, poignantly embodying the devastating, somber mood of the nation in the aftermath of the assassination. Though reminiscent of the stark Pop format that so often appealed to Warhol, here there is no sense of irony, no sense of distance. Warhol has created a dark yet heartfelt memorial to the First Lady's suffering and strength. The funeral veil in the source image here appears as a nondescript dark cloud around her face. Jackie perfectly captures her calm dignity; the composition of the picture, which closes in on the head to the exclusion of the outside world, increases the sense of tender intimacy. This sense of proximity is heightened by the scale of the work, with Jackie’s head essentially in life-size, increasing the directness and immediacy of this absorbing image. In his Jackie series, Warhol added Kennedy's widow to his pantheon of female stars, alongside Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor.
With Jackie, Warhol adapted the formula he had already tried and tested on Campbell's Soup cans and Coca-Cola bottles to use on a celebrity, but in this case, one whose image had unprecedented emotional strength. The president's glamorous widow held the intense sympathies of millions, whereas the other characters he had depicted were pinup celebrities. While reminiscent of his earlier works, Jackie creates a complex fusion between emotion and image, between Pop and popularity. Warhol's portrait of Jackie encapsulates the pervasive glare of celebrity in the midst of personal tragedy, and remains a true artistic statement that is deeply informed by the tenor of the times: the flash of the news and the assault of the media.
Jackie was executed at the heart of Warhol’s Death and Disaster series; this coveted early series illustrated how the repetition, even of gruesome devastating images, could “empty” the image of its meaning. Jackie is a by-product of how the media saturated these gruesome and despairing images daily. Warhol extracted the ubiquitous images that flooded mass media and cropped them to be void of any context or background. He created an entire series of images of Jackie that were published in newspapers and magazines and consumed as a cultural phenomenon. He illustrates the imagery of the First Lady fulfilling her responsibilities as a public figure through this catastrophe. Poet John Giorno recalls visiting Warhol at home that day: “We sat on the couch watching the live TV coverage from Dallas. Then we started hugging, pressing our bodies together, and trembling. I started crying and Andy started crying. Hugging each other, weeping big fat tears” (J. Giorno, quoted by V. Brockis, The Life and Death of Andy Warhol, London, 1998, p. 186).
Warhol selected eight different photographs for his Jackie series. Two of them depict a smiling, youthful Jackie in the moments before her husband’s assassination, and the others are taken from photographs of a stunned and somber woman aboard Air Force One as Lyndon B. Johnson was sworn in as president, and then at the funeral of John F. Kennedy three days later. In the weeks and months following Kennedy’s assassination, Warhol and his assistant Gerard Malanga carefully monitored the news, gathering materials from newspapers and magazines. By the end of February 1964, just over two months after the assassination, Warhol had hit on the final eight images that would define the Jackie series. These included photographs from the New York Daily News (November 25, 1963), Life magazine (December 6, 1963) and a special commemorative magazine called Four Dark Days (Special Publications, Los Angeles, 1963). The cinematic images that Warhol elevated from the media barrage have a storytelling aspect to them, essentially functioning as “bookends” to the assassination. While they never actually reveal the moment when the president was shot, they attest to the moments of terror, anxiety and grief that collectively gripped the nation.
The Jackie series was the first major group of works Warhol created in his new studio, the legendary Factory. Though they were never exhibited as a group when they were created, a Jackie painting was first shown in December 1964 during Warhol’s debut exhibition at the Leo Castelli Gallery in New York. Warhol showed his Flowers series in the main gallery, and Jackie Multiplied, featuring several Jackie canvases joined together, in the back gallery. Purchased directly from the Leo Castelli Gallery by John P. ("Jack") MacBean, established New Yorker and publicity manager for Holiday Magazine, in 1965, the present work and its provenance embody the crux of Warhol's oeuvre. In the same way MacBean thoughtfully curated the public face of a nationwide publication, Warhol too cropped and tailored available content to his intended audience, completing the 20th-century culture circuit and cementing Jackie's relevance to the arc of American history.
In the present work, Warhol chose to use a photograph of the First Lady at her husband’s funeral—veiled and in mourning—that took place two days after his assassination. Rather than depict the image in full color, Warhol transforms the image into its ghostly opposite, rendering the scene in a wash of blue acrylic that he hand-painted with a wide brush. Warhol reserved only three colors for the Jackie series—blue, white and gold—and critics have compared his portrayal to the religious icons of the artist’s youth. The contrast of the original source image is heightened to create a more dramatic effect, and the background of the painting is utterly steeped in darkness. The First Lady’s image is locked into place by silkscreen ink, captured in photographic precision and frozen in time.
Although Warhol created several variations in different colors, his blue Jackies are arguably the most iconic. The register of the brilliant blue background against the crispness of the black screen results in an image of extraordinary clarity. In addition, by allowing her face, left bright in comparison with the darker backgrounds, to occupy the large part of each work, Warhol foregrounds the emotional intensity. Like some Orthodox icons, her almost Madonna-like face occupies the large part of each area. Warhol’s picture is thereby filled with her pain, the images becoming a modern-day Pietà, a meditative exploration of grief. This is emphasized by Warhol’s choice of blue as the main color, cold, yet simultaneously absorbing. It is also no coincidence that blue is traditionally the color of the Madonna in Renaissance paintings, where her gown was red, representing the earth, and her robe was blue, indicating the heavens—Madonna thus representing a crucial link between Heaven and earth.