Executed in 1964, Andy Warhol’s Jackie combines glamour, tragedy and celebrity to make this one of the artist’s most iconic images of the 1960s. Offering an image of the smiling Jackie in the hours before the tragic assassinations of her husband President John F. Kennedy, Warhol’s work captures the style icon of the era moments before it would all come to an end. Between 1963-1964 Warhol engaged with subjects that defined American glamour and celebrity including Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor. Epitomising youth, beauty and style, Jackie was propelled to her revered status by her husband’s election as President of the United States in November 1960; Jackie Kennedy became an icon of the era, and ‘a breath of fresh air who did something few presidents and no other first lady had ever done. She elevated America, and she did it through style’ (P. Keogh, quoted in Jackie Style, London 2001, p. 14). As Robert Pincus-Witten suggested, Andy was ‘in love with glamour - a mediumistic radiance to which Warhol was infinitely susceptible - the vicarious tribulations of Marilyn, Liz and Jackie prompted the creation of authoritative icons of absolute diva-dom. In lesser measure, Elvis, Marlon and Troy crowded in at the edges hoping to make the cut’ (R. Pincus-Witten, Women of Warhol: Marilyn, Liz & Jackie, exh. cat., C&M Arts, New York, unpaged). What appealed to Warhol about each of these iconic women was their glamour tinged with tragedy. Warhol engaged with imagery of Elizabeth Taylor only when she was desperately ill in 1961, the world was rapt by the very real possibility of her premature death. He conceived his series on Marilyn Monroe after she died in a tragic overdose felt world-over. And his series of Jackies was conceived in the months after November 1963, when Jackie was abruptly widowed, bringing an unceremonious end to America’s Camelot dream. Warhol’s Jackie therefore, stationed between the sirens of the silver screen and popular media, between his Coke Bottles and Electric Chairs. Jackie, in keeping, and encompassing a conflation of celebrity and death, becomes the zenith of the seminal Death and Disaster works that preceded it.
For his Jackie series Warhol appropriated a group of eight photographs published by the media in the days and weeks after the assassination that chart the course of the tragic events: the bright, smiling First Lady, dressed in her signature pillbox hat, reduced to a grieving widow in mourning. Kennedy’s assassination was the first significant TV news event of its kind, with all three major television networks giving it all-news coverage for seventy hours- an unprecedented moment in history. Here, Warhol’s deliberate selection of this imagery was followed by a calculated decision presentation; closely cropping the image to focus in on the emotion of Jackie. The present image is only a fragment of the whole image, and indeed the whole event; in the present work the viewer is presented with a close-up of Jackie wearing her trademark pillbox hat and smiling beautifully, relaxed and glamorous. Only the viewer, and not the subject, is aware of the tragedy that awaits Jackie. The cropping coupled with Warhol’s choice of a near white colour palette recalls how much of the nation was living, and indeed reliving her tragedy on black and white television. In addition, the muted off-white of the background works in tandem with the tight composition to creates a simple, somber image of remembrance.
This unparalleled image suffused with sadness, immortalises and encapsulates the omnipresent glare of celebrity in the midst of personal tragedy. A work that undoubtedly comments on the implications of a celebrity life ‘the starting point of another life: a media existence, where individual identity was no longer independent and subjective, but rather became everyone’s experience, however simulated. Here the sacrifice became theatre, staging the drama of loss as a spectacle at one collective and personal’ (G. Celant, SuperWarhol, Milan 2003, p. 7). One finds that through Warhol’s repetition of such a prolific image, Warhol’s Jackie itself becomes cemented within history, instantly recognisable; in turn becoming an existential statement on presence and absence, love and loss, life and death, a reflection of American trauma. This captivating and compelling work remains a seminal treatise that summates Warhol’s aptitude to seize the most effective and intoxicating images of his time and deliver the perfect Twentieth Century history painting.