ANDOVER — The assassination of John F. Kennedy was many things: a murder, a mystery, a shock, a national nightmare, a historical turning point. It was also a Pop event: an intersection of celebrity, media, and spectacle. The first person to recognize that fact — or at least the first one to profit by it — was (who else?) Andy Warhol. Soon after the assassination, he inducted Jacqueline Kennedy into his Pop pantheon, alongside Marilyn, Elvis, and Liz. Warhol began making silk-screen portraits of her based on photographs from that day in Dallas.
The centerpiece of “Flash Back — November 22, 1963,” an exhibition that runs at the Addison Gallery of American Art, at Phillips Academy, through Jan. 12, is Warhol’s similarly titled “Flash — November 22, 1963,” a dozen screen prints with matching text, from 1968. (Those early silk-screens of Jackie, from 1963 and ’64, are not in this show.)
Although Warhol sets the tone, the show includes works by other artists. Those works range from photographs and paintings to videos, sculpture, and at least one LP. That LP, “The Oswald Case,” is a spoken-word recording, released in 1964. Marguerite Oswald, the mother of Lee Harvey Oswald, reads her son’s letters from the Soviet Union. It’s still in print, from Smithsonian Folkways, if you’re interested. The terribleness of the assassination shouldn’t obscure another important aspect of its persistence in national memory: the sheer weirdness of the event and its aftermath.
That weirdness begins with the absolute incommensurability of victim and assassin: JFK, the ultimate somebody — not only the most powerful man in the world, but a vigorous, attractive, and rich most powerful man in the world — murdered by Oswald, an ultimate nobody. One of the four Addison galleries devoted to “Flash Back” focuses on Oswald. Lutz Bacher’s 1976 print series, “The Lee Harvey Oswald Interview,” has Oswald for subject, with Bacher as interviewer and interviewee both. It reminds us that while JFK was — and is — a projection of our hopes and dreams, Oswald may exert an even more powerful hold on the imagination, reflecting our collective anxiety and confusion.
Confusion is as much a part of the assassination as weirdness is. Nearly half a century of conspiracy theories testifies to that. “The Eternal Frame,” a 1975 video by T.R. Utcho and Ant Farm, at once lampoons and embraces the many doubts about the Warren Commission’s single-gunman finding. Tina Mion’s painting “Jacqueline Kennedy, the King of Hearts — Stop Action Reaction” gets at conspiracy more subtly. Jackie, wearing her Dallas ensemble of pink hat and jacket, holds a playing card, the king of hearts. The king is Kennedy. Two swords pierce his head — “for the theory that two bullets were fired from different directions,” Mion has said. The card is in turn pierced by a bullet, an allusion to Harold Edgerton’s famous stroboscopic photograph. Mightn’t there be a further allusion, to the role of the playing card (queen rather than king) in that founding fable of conspiracy-theory culture, “The Manchurian Candidate”?
Pop is about sensation without emotion. It predicates itself on staying on the surface emotionally as well as visually. A soulless German Romanticism, say, is unthinkable (Caspar David Friedrich is the Ray Charles of painting). Equally unthinkable is a soulful Pop.
In that regard, Pop was the artistic school best suited to addressing the assassination. Contrast that with the several photographs showing the presidential party prior to JFK’s murder, and even more those showing the funeral procession, which have a capacity to move the viewer that a half century hasn’t diminished. Elliott Erwitt’s image of a veiled Jacqueline Kennedy has far more to do with the universality of mourning than the specificity of one woman’s fame. Yet the specificity of fame was so much oxygen to Pop’s flame, and Pop had the temerity to take on such a delicate subject as the assassination with no regard for whether the results might appear unfeeling, grotesque, or both.
How much temerity? The show’s wall text offers a telling remark from Warhol. “I’d been thrilled having Kennedy as a president, he was handsome, young, smart — but it didn’t bother me much that he was dead. What bothered me was the way the television and radio were programming everyone to feel so sad. It seemed like no matter how hard you tried, you couldn’t get away from the thing.”
It’s true that media, and manipulation, were key contributors to the Kennedy mystique — as JFK would have been the first to acknowledge. He correctly prided himself on his media savvy. The show includes Garry Winogrand’s famous photograph of Kennedy addressing the 1960 Democratic convention. Even though the nominee’s back is to the camera, his face is visible — on a television monitor in the foreground. There’s no more succinct demonstration of the shift in American politics brought about by television and embodied by Kennedy. But to think that the media were “programming” people to grieve says far more about Warhol than it does about either the media or the American public.
The image of a newspaper front page with headlines about Kennedy’s death starts the “Flash” series. Indicating Warhol’s through-the-looking-glass approach are silver flowers superimposed on the page and its being oriented horizontally rather than vertically. In subsequent prints, both Kennedy and Oswald appear with movie clapboards in front of their faces. Lights, camera, assassination? The series also features more conventional elements of the assassination: the presidential seal, a campaign poster, the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository with an arrow pointing to Oswald’s position, the assassin’s Mannlicher-Carcano rifle, the president and his wife in the motorcade. Faded and blurry and distressed-looking, the images mirror the instability of memory. Accompanying the prints are texts in uppercase Teletype format — the sort of sheets that announcers would have read news bulletins from. In a nice touch, Warhol includes the occasional typo. How heretical is it to suggest that Andy’s genius was even more verbal than visual?
“Flash,” as title, has a double implication: news flash and muzzle flash. The work itself carries a further burden of association: Warhol’s own near-fatal shooting, in 1968, and his sudden death at a relatively young age, in 1987. No one has ever had quite the cultural antennae that Warhol did. However unknowingly, their acuity could extend even to himself.