A long time gone: Art, the Kennedy years, and the Hotel Texas

The president and his wife were not alone in recognizing the importance of art as a component of national policy and global influence. For the first time in the history of the United States, Americans were aware that their national art had acquired universal value and that the artists on the American scene-abstract expressionists, pop, and, later, minimalist artists-were, whatever people thought of them at home, the great artistic beacons of their time.3 This awareness came at a time of sustained debate about the new art forms and the reactions they sometimes elicited from an artistic tradition primarily defined by American values. The newcomers were so much in favor of modernity and openness to the world that they did not always realize how much their art, seemingly so free of tradition and vaunting its international credentials, owed to the American space, the American city, and a modernity that was itself very American.

These aesthetic debates were often interwoven with the violent polemics of the McCarthy era. In Dallas, for example, there was vocal hostility in 1955 and 1956 to the exhibition of works by Picasso, even though the Dallas Museum of Art had shown Jackson Pollock's Cathedral on its walls since 1950. The controversy long divided the city and the museum and, in 1957, resulted in a split in the institution, with the creation of the Dallas Museum for Contemporary Arts. Although partly driven by fear of censorship, the split was also a response to the need for a nimbler attitude vis-à-vis the changing international contemporary art scene. The wounds that this division caused were healed only in April 1963, when the two museums merged again, a few months before the president's visit.

These tensions were undoubtedly reflected in the selection of art for suite 850 in the Hotel Texas in Fort Worth. It was a manifesto in all but name to place Picasso's Angry Owl cheek-by-jowl with a canvas by Claude Monet and, as David Lubin points out, it was also a sign of the enduring rivalry between Fort Worth and Dallas. But there was more going on with the exhibition than the spirited contention between the metropolitan poles of Fort Worth and Dallas. Imagined by Owen Day, the exhibition of works selected by Ruth Carter Johnson (later Stevenson) and others with no other motive than to please and surprise the Kennedys, bridged the connection between nineteenth-century art and the most modern art of the day. Mrs. Stevenson famously delivered Picasso's Angry Owl to the Hotel Texas in the front seat of her car. It is with this background in mind that I felt it would be interesting to reconstitute the exhibition, the idea of which has acquired particular poignancy from the death of its principal inspiration and visitor. But it also seemed important to do so in order to include it among the commemorations of the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of President Kennedy.

From close at hand, however, things look a little different. Dallas's perspective on the commemoration of the tragedy has long been distorted by the fear of reliving the past. When I arrived in 2009 as a stranger both to Dallas and the United States, this malaise was not immediately perceptible. But the deepest traumas are often the most secret, and this invisible fear was nonetheless a very real one. One tends to forget that such traumas do not affect the town in the abstract, but do affect each of its inhabitants individually. I remember visiting Claude Albritton, the man who, in 2009, first told me about this exhibition at the Hotel Texas. Throughout his youth, he told me, everywhere else in the United States-and indeed all over the world-the sight of the word Dallas on his passport or papers immediately elicited derogatory remarks. Many other Dallasites have shared similar experiences with me. Strangely enough, those most inclined to denial were often those who had invested the greatest hopes in the president's visit, or those who had been the most devastated by his assassination. There are many cities in the world that, in spite of their best efforts, retain the painful memory and, above all, the negative image of an event that took place within their boundaries. The hearts of their citizens seem to beat in a different way. It would be interesting to study their history and the means they have used to deliver themselves from ignominy. Some cities have escaped stigmatization even though they have witnessed similar dramas: cities such as Washington, D.C., where two presidents, Abraham Lincoln and James A. Garfield, were assassinated; or Buffalo, where William McKinley was mortally wounded.

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[Compiled by Bill Stern, Executive Director at the Museum of California Design, Los Angeles. Originally published in "Curator's Eye" in Modern Magazi

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