The night before he died, President Kennedy and his wife slept in a suite that had been turned into their own private art show. Fifty years on, the exhibition has been recreated. Charles Darwent on how America is reliving the assassination through art
Just before 8am on 22 November 1963, John F Kennedy stepped bare-headed into the rain outside the Hotel Texas and addressed a crowd of 3,000 people waiting stoically there to see him. There were, he deadpanned, no faint hearts in Fort Worth. JFK apologised for his missing wife, upstairs in their room: “Mrs Kennedy is still organising herself – it takes longer, but of course she looks better than we do when she does it.” Then he left with her for Dallas.
We all know what came next, but what had come before?
The Kennedys had spent the night of 21 November in suite 850, hung for the occasion with works of art lent by local collectors aghast at reports that the president and his wife were to be fobbed off with the hotel’s second-best rooms (the best went to Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson, the vice-president and his wife, both Texans). The loans – this was Texas – included a Van Gogh, a Picasso, a Monet, a Raoul Dufy and a Henry Moore. Visit Fort Worth today and you can see the dozen paintings and sculptures again, reunited in a show at the Amon Carter Museum called Hotel Texas: An Art Exhibition for the President and Mrs John F Kennedy.
Like all tragedies, this one began in comedy. When the Kennedys arrived late the previous night after a gruelling two-day barnstorm through south Texas, they took the Monets and Moores to be chain-store reproductions and went off to bed. The room intended for JFK had been hung with images of American manliness: Charles Marion Russell’s Lost in a Snowstorm, in which shivering cowboys and Indians bury the hatchet, was among the stranger choices curators had made for the president. Mrs Kennedy was known to be a francophile. (“My grandfather was French,” she had breathed to General de Gaulle on a visit to Paris two years before. “Mine too, madame,” he growled back.) She got the impressionists.
For some reason now lost to history, the couple, unaware of this his-and-hers hang, switched bedrooms. It was thus Jackie who went to sleep under Thomas Eakins’s Swimming, a study of naked youths at a water-hole, chosen as a nod to her husband’s escape from his sinking patrol boat in the second world war. President Kennedy would spend his last night on Earth under Van Gogh’s Road with Peasant Shouldering a Spade, a scene of rural poverty curiously unsuited to the gilded first couple.
There is something painfully intimate about seeing these works half a century on (if you can’t make it to the show, Yale has published a book), but also something oddly revealing. More than any previous first couple, the Kennedys had set out to make themselves icons, creatures of the eye, works of art. Thus the paintings hanging in suite 850: the worthies of Fort Worth would not have lent their Picassos for Ike and Mamie Eisenhower.
JFK’s had been the first presidential election to be won in a televised debate. A few hours after the Hotel Texas speech, his would be the first assassination caught on film. That, too, has added to the Dallas myth. JFK November 22, 1963: A Bystander’s View of History, a show at New York’s International Centre of Photography (ICP), suggests how disconcertingly democratic the assassination was. Its defining moment – the plume of brain tissue as the president’s skull is blown open – was captured not by a news photographer, but by a retired garment manufacturer with a Bell and Howell Zoomatic movie camera, while the assassin turned out to be a shelf-stacker in a book depository.
Since the founding fathers, the belief that anyone could be president had been a cornerstone of the American dream. As of 22 November, it seemed, anyone could shoot him as well. It was the visual complexity of this new idea that made the assassination so charged. Cameras do not lie: here, for every man to see, was the bare truth, filmed by an American everyman, Abraham Zapruder. And yet the more people looked, the more truth they saw: shadowy figures on grassy knolls, flying skull fragments, faces reflected in warehouse windows. Under the weight of visual fact, the Warren Commission stalled. Anyone might have done it, or everyone. The question “Where were you when Kennedy was shot?” took on a dark edge.
In the end, the very visibility of the assassination would make Americans disbelieve their own eyes, and their own innocence. Andy Warhol understood this straight away. Within weeks of that November day in Dallas, he was working on images of the widowed Jackie. In 1968, he would produce Flash – November 22, 1963, a grid of 11 silkscreened prints from which the expected 12th is missing, echoing the riderless horse at JFK’s funeral. These works – drawn from news images from Dallas – are at the Telfair Museum in Savannah, Georgia, in an exhibition called Warhol/JFK: November 22, 1963.
They are not the simple tributes they seem. Raised as a Byzantine Catholic, Warhol knew all about icons. He also understood the fogged relationship between belief and knowledge. “I’d been thrilled about having Kennedy as president,” he said. “He was handsome, young, smart, but it didn’t bother me that much that he was dead. What bothered me was the way television and radio were programming everybody to feel so sad. It seemed like no matter how hard you tried, you couldn’t get away from the thing.”
As with the endless news photographs from Texas and Washington, the point of Warhol’s Kennedy images would lie in their number and reiteration. Sixteen Jackies, his 1964 work, was followed in the same year by Twenty Jackies; another 16-Jackie canvas (called simply Jackie) appeared in 1965, with Twelve Jackies coming out shortly afterwards. You sense Warhol playing with his audience, doing something that artists are not meant to do: brazenly reproducing the same image again and again on a single canvas, then reproducing and re-reproducing that canvas. Yet the joke was on him. The more Jackies he made, the more satirical his making of them became, and the greater the demand for Warhol’s images grew. Truth, artistry and originality had all ceased to count after 22 November. All that mattered was that the pictures were of Jackie.
Half a century later, that paradox still has a hold on artists, and not just American ones. The Brazilian Vik Muniz, two years old when JFK was shot, out-Andied Andy a decade or so ago by remaking his Jackie multiples in that most Warholian of mediums: ketchup. One of Muniz’s re-re-re-makes is included in the ICP show, near stills of the Zapruder film, one of them the appalling “frame 313” in which Kennedy’s head explodes.
In that frame, Mrs Kennedy leans, frozen, towards her husband; you can see, or imagine you can see, her scream. Later, famously, she refused to change out of the pink Chanel suit spattered with the president’s brains for the flight back to Washington with his body. “Let them see what they’ve done,” she said. Even Warhol did not question the truth of that image, the icon of the first widow as a latter-day American Antigone.
Muniz’s use of ketchup to reproduce Warhol’s reproduced Jackies seems not so much satirical as tasteless, the crass product of a crasser time. Actually, though, the point of ketchup as a material is not that it looks like blood, but that it is perishable. Muniz, with his tomato sauce, takes on the vampiric image of that day in Dallas in 1963 and tries to make it fade away. And it won’t.
• Hotel Texas: An Exhibition for the President and Mrs John F Kennedy is at Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, until 12 January 2014; a book of the same name is published by Yale University Press, $25/£15. JFK November 22, 1963: A Bystander’s View of History is at the International Centre of Photography, New York, until 19 January. Warhol/JFK: November 22, 1963 is at Telfair Museum, Savannah, Georgia, until 9 March.