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

Only a few years separated the assassination of President Kennedy from that of his brother in Los Angeles and of Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis. Neither city seems to have felt stigmatized by those tragedies. In Los Angeles, after clashes that are almost entirely forgotten today, the very scene of that assassination has been demolished and swept away. Conversely, Dallas has established the Sixth Floor Museum in the old Texas School Book Depository, from which the fateful shots of November 22, 1963, were fired. With a mixture of preexisting energy, pride, an inferiority complex, denial, and collective guilt, Dallas stoically submitted itself to accept the condemnation of the world, never complaining about the stigmatization, but also never speaking about it. Glenn Lowry, the director of New York's Museum of Modern Art, and I had a long discussion about how the anniversary of the Kennedy assassination should be approached; he reminded me of the violence that prevailed throughout the so-called Free World during this period-in the United States, France, Italy, Germany, Argentina, and Chile.

Until the end of the 1970s, violence was omnipresent, in thought and in reality. Political assassinations were not only common currency but also seemed to form part of the natural landscape of political struggle. The barriers between verbal and physical violence were slender. The horrors of the Second World War were still present in people's minds, the Cold War was at its peak, and, either because mindsets evolved too slowly or because it was the nature of the political doctrines to which the twentieth century had given rise, murder was considered a method like any other, and many deemed it justifiable. Moreover, the Kennedy assassination seemed to mark the beginning of the volatile period known as the Sixties, the break between an era of apparent consensus in the United States and one of radical gestures and deeds.

What role can an exhibition play in the commemoration of an event of this magnitude? A great deal of discussion has taken place within the Dallas Museum of Art in the hope of finding, in an institution dedicated to the arts, the most appropriate way to commemorate one of the most tragic events in American history. There was strong support for an initial idea, that of bringing together an ensemble of art inspired by President Kennedy, from the works of Robert Rauschenberg-first and foremost Skyway (Fig. 4), painted in memory of Kennedy and already in the collection of the Dallas Museum of Art-to those of Andy Warhol (to cite only the most famous names). We also conceived of an exhibition of works on the more general theme of assassination and political violence from Jacques-Louis David's Death of Marat (1793) to Edouard Manet's Execution of Emperor Maximilian (1868-69) or Gerhard Richter's Tote 667.3 from the series October 18, 1977 (1988). Such discussions, particularly those with Jeffrey Grove, Hoffman Family Senior Curator of Contemporary Art, were deeply enriching. Ultimately the breadth of the subject, the difficulty of treating it delicately but powerfully, and the prevailing uncertainty about the nature of the commemorations in Dallas led us to decide on a more confined and concentrated vision. Finally, during a decisive impromptu discussion, the encouragement given by the Chair of the Board, Deedie Rose, convinced us that we were bound to take part in this sad commemoration. At this point another question arose: why re-enact an exhibition at the Dallas Museum of Art that is original to Fort Worth?

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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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