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Video transcript

[Music] we're at the Watts worth Athenaeum in Hartford Connecticut looking at a large painting by Robert Rauschenberg this is retroactive one from 1963 retroactive one was made immediately following john f kennedy's assassination and so we're looking at a president who was deeply loved by the public who was recently assassinated and here pictured as the central element of a painting that speaks very emotionally to the times so the artist is taking a photograph from popular media and blowing it up and then applied it to the surface of this canvas as if it was an oil painting there are multiple screened images on this all of them taken from popular culture many from magazines such as National Geographic and Life magazine but each image is screened on separately and done in a different color so there's a whole brick work of images that puts together this composition it must have been so difficult for the artist who had ordered the screens before the assassination intending to use this image but then having the meaning of that image utterly transformed by the time he received it back from the fabricator because of the assassination that had subsequently taken place he had ordered these silk screens they were in his studio he was on a trip in the south when he learned of Kennedy's death and suddenly questioned whether it would be appropriate to really go forward with making these paintings with Kennedy as an element because Kennedy as president and now an assassinated president has taken on this whole other dimension the portrait of Kennedy has been sourced from a news conference it's a very large image of Kennedy doing this emphatic gesture and this gesture is so connected with Kennedy that his hand is shown twice so the artist would take the image and would send out to a commercial silkscreen manufacturer for the screen itself and then he would take a squeegee take silkscreen ink and force it through the screen to apply it to the canvas you have to think of these images of being in magazines and newspapers and so when the artist orders he's so screens that are made by a fabricator he's having them blown up so that they have a much larger presence and so what was probably a very small picture of navel oranges in a crate is now one by one and a half feet in size so larger-than-life this issue itself is so complicated because for the entire history of art in the West we think about the handicraft of making we think about the skill of one's brushwork but here we have a mechanism a mechanical process and to complicate it even more by the time we get to 1963 when this is being produced contemporary art was supposed to be abstract and here we have the reintroduction of images artists like rauschenberg we're reacting against abstract expressionist artists but at the same time there are many elements that show the artists hand you see brushwork you see drips so it's not pristinely reproduction so this is a reference to the drips of Jackson Pollock to the energized brushstrokes of Willem de Kooning for me when I'm looking at this image I'm not seeing Kennedy I'm seeing an image of Kennedy this is very much about reproduction and representation we're looking at a conglomeration of images Kennedy of course is a central element but then there's a crate of oranges there's a glass of water there's a construction site and there's an astronaut it's a cluster of a lot of different imagery and it's as much about what's going on in the world at the time and about what's outside your window in fact Russian burg was quite famous for a particular quote I want my paintings to look like what's going on outside my window rather than what's inside my studio which is a big change from what say the Abstract Expressionists we're doing so where Pollock and de Kooning were trying to make manifest what was taking place in an interior space within them in some psychological spiritual way we have an interest in the mundane in the immediate in the actual world that surrounds him in the events around us the debris of news the debris of our commercial and industrial culture think about Russian Berg with his studio in downtown New York and outside his window probably plenty of construction sites markets that sold cartons oranges these things were just outside his window like he says in the quote Kennedy who is front and center is surrounded is framed by all of these other forms we have a thermometer or at least a forecasting device we have photographs of a nude through space through time the glass of water and all of these things framing the central figure Kennedy was very closely associated with the space race with Russia so to have Kennedy front and center and then to have an astronaut the second largest image over his shoulder I think it's really speaking a lot to Kennedy directly as well as the generalities of what's going on out in the world Kennedy had made this promise that we're going to go to the moon and although we didn't in his lifetime there was a tremendous technological set of advances that were Unleashed as a result and rauschenberg was a real fan of the American space program of Science and Technology more generally Kennedy was a very popular president and Russian Berg too was very much engaged with Kennedy I think he was devastated of when Kennedy was assassinated and his work became much more political after that even though this painting is so concerned with the contemporary because the painting was made after Kennedy's death it becomes a memorial Kennedy is eternally young he's depicted exactly how all of us remember him and see him in history books and it really is just an incredible homage to a very important political figure this is the only painting from the Kennedy works of which there are eight that depicts Kennedy in blue most of the others show him in black and white or even real color and so this is very strong in a way that it conveys the impact of this tragedy and his taking on this kind of ghostly visage you