A long time gone: Art, the Kennedy years, and the Hotel Texas
from The Magazine ANTIQUES, May/June 2013 |
On the eve of President and Mrs. John F. Kennedy's visit to Dallas in 1963 a group of Fort Worth collectors gathered sixteen masterworks of European and American art and installed them in the presidential suite in the Hotel Texas. Fifty years later their gesture is bound to strike us as astonishing, improbable, and wonderfully utopian.
In restaging that exhibition on the anniversary of the assassination, the Dallas Museum of Art and Fort Worth's Amon Carter Museum of American Art will recapture and commemorate a brief moment in our history when art and artists seemed to be a part of everything else in American life.
The following essay by Olivier Meslay, Associate Director of Curatorial Affairs at the Dallas Museum of Art, is taken from the exhibition's catalogue, published by Yale University Press. Hotel Texas: An Art Exhibition for the President and Mrs. John F. Kennedy will be on view at the Dallas Museum of Art from May 26 to September 15, and at the Amon Carter Museum from October 12 to January 12, 2014. The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza will provide films and documentation of the president's trip to Texas in 1963.
"We must never forget that art is not a form of propaganda; it is a form of truth....In free society art is not a weapon and it does not belong to the spheres of polemic and ideology. Artists are not engineers of the soul. It may be different elsewhere. But democratic society -in it, the highest duty of the writer, the composer, the artist is to remain true to himself and to let the chips fall where they may. In serving his vision of the truth, the artist best serves his nation. And the nation which disdains the mission of art invites the fate of Robert Frost's hired man, the fate of having "nothing to look backward to with pride, and nothing to look forward to with hope."
President John F. Kennedy, Amherst College, October 26, 1963
It was perhaps this speech, or at least its central theme, that gave the citizens of Fort Worth the idea of preparing an art exhibition for President John F. Kennedy and his wife, Jacqueline, who spent their last night together among the objects thus assembled. During his New Frontier campaign, Kennedy had featured art significantly in his political discourse: "And the New Frontier, for which I campaign in public life, can also be a New Frontier for American art."1 A year later, in a letter to Leonard Bernstein, the president wrote: "I am hopeful that this collaboration between government and the arts will continue and prosper. Mrs. Kennedy and I would be particularly interested in any suggestions you may have in the future about possible contributions the national government might make to the arts in America."2 One of the most beautiful manifestations of this continuing interest was the concert given by the great cellist Pablo Casals on November 13, 1961, at the White House. It was a striking demonstration of the young couple's interest in the arts and their ability to attract the most principled artists (Fig. 3).
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.
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?
The simplest response is that the idea of this commemorative exhibition was born and developed in Dallas. The more complex response resides in the inextricable link that exists between the two cities specific to that fateful day in November: Kennedy's last night was spent in the westernmost town; his last day ended thirty miles to the east. This shared legacy would not exist but for the catastrophe that unfolded during this twenty-four-hour slice in time-the Fort Worth exhibition would otherwise have dissolved into history, and Dallas would have been just another city on the president's itinerary through the state. Thus, a partnership was forged in 2012 between the Dallas Museum of Art and the Amon Carter Museum of American Art in Fort Worth. I should point out that, without the support of Andrew J. Walker, the director of the Amon Carter, nothing of this kind would have been possible. The two institutions, the Dallas Museum of Art and the Amon Carter, are the principal actors in this exhibition, and it is through their seamless collaboration that the project has been realized. Let us also gratefully acknowledge that irreplaceable link between the past and present, the woman who was behind the original exhibition at the Hotel Texas, Ruth Carter Stevenson, former president of Amon Carter's Board of Directors and daughter of Amon Carter, himself a proud champion of Fort Worth. Other reasons as well led to this choice. For those who have not lived much of their lives in the Metroplex, the division between the two cities seems clearly artificial and strangely evocative of Berlin after the fall of the Iron Curtain, or Buda and Pest before Budapest. The distance between the two cities is now so small that one is surprised to find that the president made the trip by plane. Today we can only imagine the strange voyage that took him from Carswell Air Force Base in Fort Worth to Love Field in Dallas, a flight of thirty miles and less than thirteen minutes.
Finally, to remember what took place at the Hotel Texas is also to restore the memory of a Texas welcome that has been obscured by the assassination. The murder of the president left a brutal image of both Dallas and Texas. But we must remember another aspect of President Kennedy's trip: crowds of people were overjoyed by it, and vast numbers assembled to acclaim him (see Fig.1), both in Fort Worth and in Dallas. There are many still alive today who were waiting in the hall at which the lunch in his honor was to be held. What strikes one today is the enthusiasm that they manifested and the stupor and terror almost universally felt when his assassination was announced. Dallas has spent nearly fifty years in the shadow of this obsession without always realizing that these tragic events forced it to radically reinvent itself. Without ever consciously accepting the fact, without ever speaking of it so as not to be seen as complaining, but with the idea of overcoming this trauma and surviving the resulting stigma by which it became known to the world as the city of JFK's death, Dallas has created a landscape wholly different from that of 1963. Fifty years on, part of what is great about Dallas comes from sublimating this tragedy. In the aftermath of the assassination, the city leaders, in a sort of hairpin turn from former politics, asked one of the founders of Texas Instruments, Inc., J. Erik Jonsson, to take over the city as mayor. He was an easterner, an engineer, and a businessman. In 1965 he established a program called Goals for Dallas that asked the question, "What kind of city do you want to be?" The program initially solicited ideas from some two dozen people (civic and religious leaders but also art and health professionals), expanding by 1969 into a far-reaching venture seeking input from thousands of people. He reshaped the city not only physically but also psychologically. Later Jonsson recalled: "They needed something to do, to talk about, and to work with that was as far apart from the assassination and its grieving as it could possibly be. I think that we were fortunate to hit on this, and we took full advantage of it."4We should remember what certain artists-Sandro Botticelli, Leonardo da Vinci, or (more methodically if with less renown) Alexander Cozens-have written about the metamorphosis of a stain into a wonderful new landscape. To pay homage to the deceased president by invoking the highest manifestations of human genius-those by which he was surrounded during his last night on earth-is to remember what was best about those times without denying what was ignoble or ever ceasing to remember the tragic destiny of one man.
In addition to those already mentioned, I would like to thank the following people who helped me understand the period and improve this introduction: Bill Jordan, Natalie and George Lee, James Traub, and in lasting gratitude and admiration, Margaret McDermott.
1 Senator John F. Kennedy to Theodate Johnson, September 13, 1960, Musical America, October 11, 1963, p. 11. 2 President John F. Kennedy to Leonard Bernstein, September 8, 1961, Leonard Bernstein Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress (072.00.00). 3 Further reading on the subject includes versions of the events recorded in Serge Guilbaut, How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art: Abstract Expressionism, Freedom, and the Cold War, trans. Arthur Goldhammer (University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1983); Frances Stonor Saunders, Who Paid the Piper? The CIA and the Cultural Cold War (Granta Books, London, 1999); and Michael Kimmelman, "Revisiting the Revisionists: The Modern, Its Critics, and the Cold War," in The Museum of Modern Art at Mid-Century: At Home and Abroad, Studies in Modern Art 4 (Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1994), pp. 38-55. 4 J. Erik Jonsson, quoted in the interactive timeline on the Texas Instruments website (ti.com/corp/docs/company/history/timeline), under Community, 1960-1969, 1965.