When the US emerged from World War II, a sense of triumph fell across her landscape. While Europe had experienced extreme devastation, the US took to building a strong infrastructure and relied on science to lead the way. The US made sure to shore up its democracy by ferreting out Communists and proving it was the better place to live through kitchen debates. Rising to the helm of the exciting new world was John F. Kennedy, the youngest president elected to date. His attractive wife and two young children were the very embodiment of the young, bold nation. With prosperity abounding, the US built its infrastructure and promised to send a man to the moon by the end of the decade. It was, for the time, a period of elation and great hope.
The Dream Died
John F. Kennedy’s assassination on November 22, 1963 shocked the nation and sent a wave of mourning across the country. The American dream died with it. Andy Warhol, then just 35 and emerging as an internationally renowned artist, said:
I heard the news over the radio when I was alone painting in my studio. I don’t think I missed a stroke. I wanted to know what was going on out there, but that was the extent of my reaction. … 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 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…. John Quinn, the playwright … was moaning over and over, “But Jackie was the most glamorous First Lady we’ll ever get.”1
Warhol immediately launched into a series of Jackie Kennedy portraits called 16 Jackies that, in typical Warholian fashion, expressed detachment from emotions, an attitude he regarded as characteristic of the 1960s in general.2 Just like the newscasts and radio shows reporting the death of Kennedy served to numb the American public, so too do the repetitions of the Warhol Jackie images – the repetitions of “Jackies” serving to dull our awareness of her individuality. Creating for the viewer (Warhol?) the sense of a replicating machine void of feeling. For Warhol, “the more you look at exactly the same thing, the more the meaning goes away and the better and emptier you feel.”3
Flash-November 22, 1963
It would seem that the process of emptying oneself of feeling would purge the emotion completely leaving the person, in this case Warhol, free to move to other projects. Yet, five years later, Warhol returned to the Kennedy assassination to create Flash-November 23, 1963. Warhol turns to the primary source(s) of Kennedy’s death – newspaper articles, official government photographs, and portraits of Kennedy and his wife Jackie, but as single images – repetitions he had done shortly after Kennedy’s assassination.
In one image, Warhol shows us a smiling Kennedy as he campaigns for his presidency.
In another, Warhol collages Kennedy’s campaign images with that of a director’s cue, blending the iconic Kennedy, the official Seal of the President of the United States, with the media frenzy that followed his assassination.
But it’s not just Kennedy in the spotlight. Warhol is unafraid to show us an advertisement for the suspected murder weapon and Lee Harvey Oswald, the suspected assassin. Note that Oswald is also shown collaged with a Director’s slate – telling the viewer that nearly as much media time was spent on Oswald as Kennedy.
Two further shots increase the drama – the limousine that drive Kennedy and was bullet riddled, and a dramatic purple image locating the very spot where the suspected assassin pulled the trigger.
The power of these images alone is compelling but what happens when Warhol brings them together as a single artwork? Warhol accomplishes what the best artists are wont to do – Warhol told us our American tragedy – the death of a President but simultaneously the death of the American dream. Flash-November 23, 1963 is a poignant, yet powerful, glimpse into an America that had hoped for a better tomorrow and in a flash, was shattered beyond possibility.
Warhol, Andy and Pat Hackett. PoPism: The Warhol ‘60s. (NY and London: Harcourt Brance Jovanovich, 1980), p. 36.
Warhol, Andy. The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (NY and London: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1975), p. 75
Warhol, PoPism, p. 50.