‘I’d been thrilled having Kennedy as president; he was handsome, young, smart – but it didn’t bother me that much that he was dead. What bothered me was the way the television and radios were programming everybody to feel so sad...’ (A. Warhol, quoted in P. Hackett, Popism: The Warhol Sixties, New York 1980, p.60).
The images flash as though introducing the top of the news hour: ‘woman smiling’, flickers to ‘woman grieving’. In Four Jackies, Andy Warhol offers the spectre of glamour, tragedy and celebrity in his closely cropped images of Jacqueline Kennedy. Executed in 1964, Warhol based his series of Jackie paintings on the press coverage in the immediate aftermath of the assassination of John F. Kennedy in Dallas on November 22, 1963. Warhol controversially juxtaposes the smiling First Lady relaxed and glamorous first lady against images of the grieving Jackie after the most famous gunshots in 20th century American history.
In these four works, Warhol captures the sense of tragedy that the media would trade on for days and weeks after, coaxing a pervasive atmosphere of national grief in the ‘shared loss’ that befell not just America’s First Family, but also the country itself. Kennedy’s assassination was the first significant television news event of its kind, with all three major television networks covering it for seventy hours- a record only superseded by the 9/11 attacks on the world trade centre in New York. The imagery played and replayed by the media created an air of near theatrical dramatic irony, with images of a smiling Jackie shown repeatedly when the audience was already aware of the ill-fate which would befall her. Scenes of an emotional and shocked Jackie were sent around the world, resonating with a sombre national mood. This profoundly affected Warhol, who said ‘I’d been thrilled having Kennedy as president; he was handsome, young, smart – but it didn’t bother me that much that he was dead. What bothered me was the way the television and radios were programming everybody to feel so sad...’ (A. Warhol, quoted in P. Hackett, Popism: The Warhol Sixties, New York 1980, p.60). Warhol was fascinated by the media circus that followed the horrific event, as images of Jackie saturated press outlets from newspapers, magazines, popular publications, and of course on television. Reinforcing the chronological immediacy in which Warhol worked, he conceived his Jackies within a very short period of time in early February 1964, just over two months after the assassination
Warhol selected a sequence of eight images of Jackie from before and after the assassination: the ‘before’ photographs portray the smiling First Lady, wearing her famous pillbox hat, sitting beside her husband in the backseat of the car during the motorcade. The next photograph shows her stunned and hatless beside Lady Bird and Lyndon Johnson during his swearing in as prudent aboard Air Force One before flying back to Washington. The ‘after’ photographs present the grieving widow veiled and unveiled during the funeral ceremonies in Washington. In his curated selection of images, Warhol bookends the event which took place between frames, thereby colouring our engagement with the documentary imagery. Cropping in closely around Jackie’s face from his chosen reproduction, Warhol brings her into close-up, making her the dramatic focus and emotional barometer of the Kennedy assassination, immortalizing her public mourning of a private tragedy. The result is a fragmented historical narrative experienced through a shifting series of portraits, assembled in a cinematic montage.
Jackie belongs to the triumvirate of tragic, leading ladies that Warhol was to devote himself to between 1963-1964. Among the sirens of the silver screen and popular media, the artist chose images of three of the brightest luminaries: Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor and Jacqueline Kennedy to reproduce on canvas. For each, their sad stories belied the perfection of their larger-than-life personas. In 1961 Elizabeth Taylor, the glittering film star, was desperately ill, the world rapt by the very real possibility of her premature death. In August 1962, Marilyn Monroe died by a tragic overdose felt world-over. In November 1963, Jacqueline Kennedy, was abruptly widowed, bringing an unceremonious end to America’s Camelot dream. Jacqueline Kennedy was the embodiment of ‘Camelot’, the dream of a new American renaissance that accompanied John F. Kennedy’s election as the 35th President of the United States. After John F. Kennedy’s death, Jackie had the intense sympathies of millions, and the death of her husband only further enshrined her role as a cultural symbol. In his Jackie, Warhol creates a complex fusion between emotion and image, between Pop and popularity. More than any other artist of his time, Warhol brilliantly captured the drama of the sixties, producing some of the most iconic images to emerge from the period. Standing on the brink of his ‘Death and Disaster’ series, Warhol’s portrait of Jackie encapsulates celebrity’s pervasive glare in the midst of personal tragedy. These subjects became some of the most important of Warhol’s career.
These were all made at the same time as Warhol was focusing on his ‘Death and Disaster’ series, and they are considered to be companion pieces. This numbing that Warhol perceived as a strange facet of contemporary existence in the media age, a by-product of the saturation of the press with the gruesome on a day-to-day basis, was briefly countered by the television channels and newspapers in the wake of Kennedy’s death when they unleashed an amazing food of imagery and coverage encouraging grief and despair. And yet paradoxically it is precisely this increased and repeated exposure to the same initially shocking news or image that plays a part in immunising the modern viewer to such traumas. The fact that these images, and others like them, were so endemic dulled the sting of death for the public. Each shocking and dramatic headline and front cover photo helped to numb readers and viewers, a process that has culminated in the present day world of 24 hour television, repeating the same tragic information on an endless loop.
The fragmented temporal or narrative unity of the Jackie series was further dispersed not only through Warhol’s mechanical handling of the subject through his silk-screen technique but also in their presentation. Warhol envisioned some of the panels individually, while others were grouped in multiples. He regimented a single view in a grid, or repeated one image in each row, or scrambled all the versions. Warhol invited collectors to build their own composite paintings using several canvases that repeated the same image in any combination of their choosing. This idea was a logical, if also typically mechanical and commercial, conclusion to his general concept of fattening painting down to a TV screen-like image, conquering content through repetition and overcoming composition by an arbitrary or chance arrangement of its parts. This same practice of making separate component-part canvases that could be combined into larger composite works would define and determine the manner in which Warhol used the repetition of imagery in his work.
The sense of repetition in both image and composition demonstrates the degree to which Warhol’s interest was not exclusively vested in the human subject or the content of the image but in its appearance, both visually and contextually – the way that it looked graphically, appeared photographically, and functioned in cinematic terms. This is reinforced with the colour palette which remained largely restricted to cerulean or phthalo blue and a grey-white, which in its juxtaposition biographer Victor Bockris noted recalled the colours that ‘divided America in the Civil War’, and indeed bring resonance to a Democratic ‘Northern’ president being shot-down in the heart of the South almost a century later (V. Bockris, The Life & Death of Andy Warhol, London 1989, p. 186).
The Kennedys remained a touchstone for Warhol; he could not help but feel that his life was intrinsically linked to America’s ‘first family’, associating all the emotion of their trials and tribulations to his own existence. Indeed when he survived his own assassination attempt in 1968 Warhol noted, ‘When I woke up somewhere – I didn’t know it was at the hospital and that Bobby Kennedy had been shot the day after I was – I heard fantasy words about thousands of people being in St. Patricks’ Cathedral praying and carrying on, and then I heard the word “Kennedy” and that brought me back to the television world again because then I realized, well, here I was, in pain’ (A. Warhol, The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (From A to B and Back Again), New York 1975, p. 91).