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JFK and Art


The Bruce Museum of Arts and Science presents JFK and Art, the first exhibition to examine how American and European artists helped to shape the Kennedy legend and legacy, from September 20, 2003 through January 11, 2004. The advent of Pop Art around 1960 coincided with the election of John Fitzgerald Kennedy (1917-1963) as the thirty-fifth President of the United States. During his campaign and throughout his presidency, JFK's image figured prominently among the media-inspired icons of daily life that defined the new art movement. JFK and Art will bring together over 40 paintings, sculptures, drawings and photographs from public and private collections throughout the world to investigate the Kennedy myth and mystique in relation to the art of its time. The showing at the Bruce Museum also coincides with the fortieth anniversary of Kennedy's assassination on November 22, 1963. (right: Robert Rauschenberg (American, b. 1925), Retroactive I, 1963, oil on canvas, 83 7/8 x 59 7/8 inches, Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, © Robert Rauschenberg/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY)

JFK and Art is the first exhibition to offer an overview of the pervasive influence that the JFK presidency had on an exceptionally large and diverse group of artists. The show will include such important twentieth century artists as Pablo Picasso, Norman Rockwell, Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns and Andy Warhol.

Following its debut at the Bruce Museum, the exhibition will travel to the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach, Florida, where it will be on view from February 2 through May 2, 2004.

The exhibition is accompanied by a major catalogue with an essay by the highly regarded 20th century art specialist Dr. Kenneth E. Silver. JFK and Art is organized by the Bruce Museum and co-curated by Nancy Hall-Duncan, Curator of Art, and Cynthia Drayton, Curatorial Assistant. The show is underwritten by Citigroup and Citigroup Private Bank and an Honor Committee. Moffly Publications, Inc. is the media sponsor.

JFK and Art begins with several photographs, including the famous image of John F. Kennedy sitting at the controls of his PT Boat. As a young Lieutenant commander, Kennedy helped save his crew after a Japanese destroyer cut his boat in two. His youthful good looks and reputation for bravery were promoted in his media campaign, advancing his career from wartime hero to President. In a photograph of JFK speaking at the 1960 Democratic convention in Los Angeles, Garry Winogrand captures the media-savvy and telegenic presidential candidate making a characteristic gesture; JFK's image, which is captured from both back and front by the presence of a television screen, is emblematic of his political self-awareness and success.

Many artists were inspired by Kennedy as a symbol of hope and a representative of a vital new humanitarianism in politics. For instance, Robert Rauschenberg deeply admired Kennedy, who he regarded as a Renaissance man and an advocate of humanity with consummate political skills and a deep appreciation for the arts. Between 1960 and 1964, the artist created several works that were either dedicated to Kennedy or featured him, including a key work in the exhibition, Retrospective I. Shortly after Kennedy's assassination in 1963, Rauschenberg was compelled to complete his series of eight silk-screens featuring an enlarged image of the photogenic JFK speaking while making an emphatic pointing gesture. An astronaut parachuting back to earth appears juxtaposed with Kennedy's image in several paintings, including Retroactive, to celebrate Kennedy's bold initiative in starting the space program.

Other artists reacted to Kennedy and his administration in many different ways, not all positive. Picasso was not an admirer of Kennedy's and painted his Rape of the Sabines (1963) as a response to the Cuban Missile Crisis. Larry Rivers also painted Friendship of America and France in 1961-62 in response to a specific event, namely Kennedy's first meeting in Paris with Charles de Gaulle.

Artists also reacted to cultural events during the Kennedy administration. Andy Warhol's silkscreen painting of the Mona Lisa was created in response to the controversy surrounding Kennedy's organization of the first United States showing of Leonardo da Vinci's timeless masterpiece. Mark Shaw photographed Pablo Casals taking a bow after playing his cello at the White House. Both images allude to the reputation for the support of the arts enjoyed by JFK and his wife Jacqueline. The gallery owner Leo Castelli presented Jasper Johns's bronze sculpture Flag (1960) to the White House on Flag Day, much to the artist's dismay.

Kennedy's assassination stunned the public and moved countless artists to create memorial works. Their visceral reactions ranged from Hans Hofmann's abstract expressionist painting, To JFK: A Thousand Roots did Die with Thee to Warhol's silk-screen images of Jacqueline Kennedy, once again excerpted from the news media's photographs of the fateful trip to Dallas. Even several years after his death, artists continued to create works that idolized Kennedy and his administration. Kennedy and his brother-in-law Sargent Shriver together are presented in profile with several young men and women in a Norman Rockwell painting, The Peace Corps. The exhibition also features several realistic paintings of John F. Kennedy done posthumously, including James Wyeth's Portrait of John F. Kennedy, 1967, and Aaron Shikler's charcoal study for the official White House portrait.

The paintings, sculpture, drawings, prints and photographs of the 1960s preserve not only the look of an era with a unique visual heritage but also create the history and collective memory of those promising, troubled and anguished times. The exhibition and accompanying catalogue offer new insights on this important period of American history and art history.


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