The world as a whole still seems to be split on the opinion of Warhol, and there’s just as many haters as there are obsessors. Nobody can really make up their mind, and I feel like I’m sitting here playing an endless game of chess with a dead artist.
My personal dilemma with Warhol and his work came to a head with the JFK/Warhol exhibit at the Telfair Museum. Just in time for the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination in November, former SCAD professor Herbert Brito opened his private collection to show Warhol’s “Flash” portfolio of 11 silkscreen prints documenting the well-known tragedy.
I entered the exhibit with a heavy heart for JFK’s legacy and was concerned with how an artist like Warhol, who produced art at surface value for surface’s sake, could carry that legacy on. Warhol’s fascination with glamour, celebrity, and media didn’t feel like the right fit for such a somber subject – at first. The shocking colors of the prints seemed to mock the tragedy and the almost oppressive stare of the large security guards that watched me suspiciously only added to the thick air of obvious fame and fame-worshipping that Warhol left behind.
The prints have bubblegum bright colors; the smiling faces of John and Jackie shining slick through the glass back at me. The print of the 6.5 Italian Carbine gun gilded in neon green looks a lot more like a collector’s item than an object of destruction, and the large cartoon arrow pointing at the window from which Oswald made his shot resembles a purple fast food drive-thru instead of the scene of a crime.
On the opposite wall, there is full color footage of the assassination; a small scarlet firework explodes from JFK’s head on a loop over and over, and I was slightly horrified that there was no disclaimer at the beginning for young children or the faint of heart. Next to the TV, a large photo of Warhol himself is affixed to the wall– the largest thing in the room, naturally– and below the photo, a quote:
“I’d been thrilled about having Kennedy as president. He was handsome, young, smart, but it didn’t bother me 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.”
I wasn’t there on November 22, 1963, but I know that the country was devastated. JFK was a light for a new generation. He stood beside the civil rights movement and helped break ground for equal employment. His death was a blow to the American hope, and the apathy that Warhol approached so many of his pieces with always leaves an unpleasant taste on my tongue. It seems inappropriate for this artist to touch the legacy of another who stood for so many values, emotions, and ideals. I stood in the gallery stubborn, glaring at the giant photo of Warhol’s pale face. But I widened my gaze, and forced myself to look at the darker edges around the whole controversy. I turned back to the footage of the assassination. It’s all just television.
The title of the portfolio was inspired by the “news flashes” that began after the assassination, updates about Kennedy’s death, and the live footage of Oswald’s own murder not long after that. JFK was the country’s first TV president; from televised debates to the shining, crooning Marilyn Monroe singing happy birthday, the lines between Hollywood, pop culture, and politics were really beginning to blur. The coverage of the assassination became the first real news event on TV, covering more than 70 on-air hours– and that is what Warhol was trying to say all along. The social consequences of the changing, electric face of politics needed to be commented on, and still does today. Politics and presidencies have turned into a game of popularity and outings instead of leadership.
This is the sort of controversy that Telfair CEO, Lisa Grove, wanted to create all along, “Anytime we can connect to current culture we become more relevant, and it’s a more interesting opportunity to be a little provocative, to give people something that’s exciting as well.”
The Telfair accomplished their goal, and 50 years later Warhol is still looking down at us, getting his messages across. And though it may have been a moral grey area to exploit a great man’s death to make that commentary, isn’t that the controversy he wanted all along?
I won’t approve of you Warhol, but I’ll give you your credit. Checkmate.The JFK/Warhol exhibit will be up at the Jepson Center through March 9, 2014.