Towards the end of 1963, Andy Warhol was still finessing his transformation from well-paid commercial illustrator to world-famous Pop artist. During the previous decade, this son of impoverished immigrants from eastern Europe had earned a comfortable living drawing elegant designs for magazine editors and advertising executives on Madison Avenue. In 1960, though, he changed tack, and began making off-kilter paintings responding to popular culture, in the hope of finding fame as a ‘proper’ artist.
He painted Batman, Popeye and Superman before beginning his series of 32 Campbell’s Soup Cans the following year. In 1962, he discovered that he could harness the photo-silk-screen technique to make paintings, and he used it to produce portraits of Marilyn Monroe after her death that summer. By 1963, he had bought a 16mm camera and shot his first minimalist film, Sleep.
But arguably it was not until the winter of 1963 that he reached maturity as a Pop artist, after an event of international importance galvanised his activities: the assassination on 22 November of John F Kennedy in Dallas, Texas. Like the rest of America, Warhol was transfixed by the media spectacle sparked by the death of the 35th US president. He decided to document it in his art.
Along with his assistant Gerard Malanga, Warhol began scouring newspapers and magazines for images relating to the assassination and its aftermath. As they gathered source material for an important new series of paintings, they had eyes for only one person: JFK’s enchanting wife, Jackie Kennedy.
In the end, Warhol focused on eight photographs of Jackie culled from newspapers and Life magazine. In narrative terms, they spanned the story arc of the murder of JFK. Two showed Jackie smiling and wearing a pink pillbox hat upon her arrival with her husband in Dallas. In two more, taken later that day after JFK’s death, she appeared stricken yet determined during the swearing in of Lyndon B Johnson on Air Force One. A further four pictures recorded her as a widow with a veil at the state funeral in Washington just three days after the assassination.
Anguish into art
Early in 1964, Warhol began silk-screening these photographs onto pre-coloured grounds. Between May and November, he made more than 300 Jackie paintings. Many of them measured 20in by 16in (51cm by 41cm) individually, and could be arranged in various combinations to form larger, gridded compositions. Today they range in price from $1.2m to tens of millions of dollars for the multiple portraits. To celebrate the 50th anniversary of their creation, the Blain Di Donna gallery in New York has brought together more than 20 of the paintings in the first exhibition to focus solely on this series.
“The Jackie series is just as iconic as Warhol’s paintings of Marilyn,” explains Emmanuel Di Donna, director of the gallery. “She wasn’t a movie star, but she was America’s royalty: young, glamorous, regal, and the most popular First Lady. One of the world’s greatest style icons, she influenced the way an entire generation of American women wanted to look, dress and behave. She was a visual metaphor for the youth and promise of the Kennedy administration.”
In his series, Warhol cropped the source photographs so that each portrait was a close-up of Jackie’s face. Other characters are occasionally visible behind her: her smiling husband, a grim-faced soldier in uniform or a tiny figure looking toward her standing upon the tarmac of the runway in the distance. Yet the shifting emotions of this suffering, lonely yet pretty and dignified young woman provide the principal motif.
“By cropping Jackie’s face and repeating it, Warhol focused on her beauty, courage, grace and vulnerability during this tragic event,” Di Donna says. “Jackie’s powerful image represents not only her grief, but also that of the entire country.”
Beginning with this series, Warhol took a conceptual leap – he was painting the way that Jackie was represented in the media as much as the First Lady herself. He once said, “I’d been thrilled about 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 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.”
The serial nature of the Jackie portraits – the way the images are repeated over and over again – is a metaphor for how the news media can work: bludgeoning its audience with a finite set of pictures and words, until we are “programmed” to think and feel a certain way.
“The Jackie paintings are important because for the first time, Warhol was making portraits from newspaper and magazine images,” Di Donna explains. “His previous portraits were made from publicity and news-service photos. This was the first time his portraits looked like images from a newspaper. Warhol used the news as a subject.”
For the British collector and former art dealer Anthony d’Offay, who commissioned Warhol to make his Fright Wig self-portraits during the Eighties, the Jackie paintings also embody one of the artist’s central concerns: death. “Warhol was obsessed by death,” d’Offay tells me. “He virtually died himself on the operating table after he was shot [in 1968], and death creeps in to many of his works. The Fright Wig paintings he made for us in 1986 often make one think of a death mask.”
Warhol’s upbringing offers another context for understanding his Jackie series. “Remember that Andy was brought up an Eastern Orthodox Catholic in Pittsburgh where the veneration of icons of female saints was regular practice at weekly mass,” d’Offay says. “Think gold ground, flat images, repetition.”
Warhol created several ‘Round Jackies’ in which the First Lady appears against a background spray-painted gold. But the influence of what he witnessed in church as a boy may also explain why so many of the Jackie portraits are different shades of blue. As well as being an elegiac colour, appropriate for mourning, blue is the colour of the Holy Virgin – and Jackie was like a contemporary, secular version of a saint, venerated by the masses.
This is certainly how Warhol’s close associate Bob Colacello, who edited Interview magazine, which the artist founded, understands the Jackie portraits. “I now am convinced that, above all, Andy was making religious art for a secular culture,” he writes in the catalogue accompanying the Blain Di Donna exhibition. With his portraits of Marilyn and the film star Elizabeth Taylor, “[Warhol’s] trilogy of saints – two Magdalens and a Holy Virgin – was complete.”
Alastair Sooke is art critic of The Daily Telegraph