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Art Review: Warhol's Kennedy show mixes history and mythology

Tuesday, January 20, 2004

By Barry Hannegan

Warhol's Kennedy show mixes history and mythology

In "Leaves of Grass," Walt Whitman observed, "As soon as histories are properly told there is no more need of romances." If that is so, then the show at The Andy Warhol Museum tells us that we are not very far along in that process. The exhibition, "Image, Memory, Myth," commemorates the 40th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, and yet the show is the very stuff of romance, as its title indeed proclaims.

Andy Warhol's "Jackie" (1964) is included in the "Image, Memory, Myth" show.
Click photo for larger image.

Physically, the exhibition, organized by Warhol director Tom Sokolowski, would appear, for the most part, to be a straightforward didactic survey of the various and abundant records that document those several days in November 1963. Much of this material has been borrowed from the collaborating institution, The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza (Dallas).

Newspapers, photographs, amateur and network videos and film clips record every conceivable aspect of the prelude and aftermath of that infamous moment. Augmented by ephemera, some commercial and some of folklore-like artlessness, this considerable accumulation of artifacts can be seen as constituting a record and, hence, common memory.

Not coincidentally, most of this material is assembled on The Warhol Museum's sixth floor, and the rather gritty, industrial-strength quality of these spaces serves as an appropriate setting for the mingling of the grim and the mundane. The show is handsomely and cleverly installed, although that is hardly the first impression it might make.

For this assignment, the museum has called again on the skills of local display designer Rob Bupp. While one might expect that the kinds of documentary artifacts included here would or even should be paraded in a matter-of-fact progression, there is in reality a good deal of rhetoric, insinuated by sound, repetition, juxtaposition and lighting; this last element, although sometimes making reading the abundant printed matter a little difficult, is a major contributor to the subterranean oppressiveness of the show's mood.

It is with the installation that one begins to enter the worlds of image and myth. Just as the news media of 1963 responded to those events and also helped shape one's understanding of them, so do aspects of the show bring forward to today something of the mythic aura of the Kennedy administration and its sudden end. After all, much of the show's material can be viewed as relics and ex-votos from our national hagiography. This is often most discernible in the text of some of the wall panels that continue to pay homage to the glamour and vitality of President and Mrs. Kennedy and to the inspired appropriation of the idea of a latter-day Camelot.

If there is myth, there must be image, and it is here that the show has its roots and core. Warhol's interest in Jacqueline Kennedy is amply demonstrated by the more than 100 portraits of her that he produced in his customary square canvases executed in acrylic and silk screen. This seeming preoccupation surely serves to justify the museum's exhibition, although at first thought, there seems to be some lack of connection between the events of the assassination, spread before us in one floor of the show, and the tidier, more directly expressed link between the artist and the first lady, which is the theme of much of the exhibition on the museum's seventh floor.

However, what the show admirably achieves is to bring home to us that President and Mrs. Kennedy shared with the artist a calculating and very resourceful interest in self-image, admittedly of differing configurations, but purposefully developed toward self-imposed goals. In Warhol's many repetitions of Jacqueline Kennedy's face, was there an implicit recognition of her extraordinary cultivation of self-image? Was there even a touch of admiring envy in the artist's repeated celebration of the era's defining image of intelligent glamour?

We like to think that journalism provides us with the raw material of history, but where there is accident and choice and policy, as there always is, the bare data of the past are at least partially hidden. In the case of President and Mrs. Kennedy, the show demonstrates that the bare bones of reality were well fleshed out in deliberate masks, not disguises certainly, but elaborate makeup intended to sustain roles. Whitman's "romances" were there from the beginning.

The show includes two works of art inspired by the assassination, which further the ambiguity inherent in much of the exhibition and its material. "NEXUS 40: November 22, 1963" is a collaborative piece created by Ruth Stanford and Lilith Bailey-Kroll for the exhibition. Its essential components are a pair of elegant acrylic chairs, evoking the president and Gov. Connally, to which are attached a series of small mirrors that allow a laser beam to trace the path of a bullet trajectory. Elegant, spare,and cold (one is tempted to say bloodless), the lifesized construction moves the historic event into a world of iconic contemplation.

The second work is a recent video piece, "Death in Dallas," by the Serbian artist Zoran Naskovski, who marries film clips from the life and death of the president to a recording of a Balkan ballad on the tragedy. The somber intoning of the elegy underscores the portentous quality of the film, which has been altered to achieve a pronounced graininess and halting movement. We might be watching a record of the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand. In both this case and that of "NEXUS 40," myth seems to have taken over entirely.

The exhibition belongs to no conventional type. It treats documentary materials as cultural artifacts and works of art as documents. Like Gertrude Stein, it encourages us to consider the questions rather than the answers. The show can be experienced in a number of ways and to various ends, and these are not necessarily mutually exclusive.

The conflation of cultural history, documentation and art, all present in the show, has emerged as a pattern for the museum's programs. This is an intricate undertaking that may sometimes account for some uncertainty as to what we are being shown and told. The variety of lenses through which the historical material is viewed in the exhibition leads me to wonder just where the museum's own position falls in that gamut extending from proper telling to romance.

The exhibition continues at The Warhol Museum on the North Shore through March 21. Information: 412-237-8300.

Barry Hannegan is a freelance writer and the former director of historic design programs for Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation.

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