Although Warhol was already impressed with the glamour of Jackie Kennedy by 1962,1
he was unmoved by the news of John Kennedy's assassination the following year. He later recalled:
I heard the news over the radio when I was alone painting in my studio. I don't think I missed a stroke. I wanted to know what was going on out there, but that was the extent of my reaction.... Henry Geldzahler wanted to know why I wasn't more upset, so I told him about the time I was walking in India and saw a bunch of people in a clearing having a ball because somebody they really liked had just died and how I realized then that everything was just how you decided to think about it. I'd been thrilled 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 the 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.... John Quinn, the playwright ... was moaning over and over, "But Jackie was the most glamorous First Lady we'll every get."2
For Warhol, the visual means for expressing detachment from emotions, an attitude he regarded as characteristic of the 1960s in general,3 was through the replication of images. Like the droning repetition of newscasts, the device dissipates meaning, and with it the capacity of images to move or disturb: "The more you look at the same exact thing, the more the meaning goes away and the better and emptier you feel."4
The sixteen faces of Jackie Kennedy in Warhol's painting were blown up from four news photos that appeared ubiquitously in the media after the assassination. From top to bottom, the images are of Jackie smiling at Love Field on arrival in Dallas; stunned at the swearing-in ceremony for L.B.J. on Air Force One after the president's death; grieving at the Capitol; and in the limousine before the shooting. The top three appeared in the 24 November and 6 December 1963 issues of Life magazine: the first by an unidentified photographer; the second and third by Cecil Stoughton and Fred Ward, respectively; the source for the bottom one has not been identified, although a U.P.I. photograph similar to it was reproduced in Newsweek. Eventually, in Warhol's view, these images became so familiar that neutral identification is all that the viewer experiences.
Warhol make this point by repeating each of the four image of Jackie four times, in a simple well-designed non-sequential alternation of strips of "before and after" pictures. The high-contrast, low-information pictures, each as different from the others as one reproduction from another, are cropped to focus on Jackie's face, rhythmically directed one way along one row and then the other along the next. A deliberately careless look gives the painting a sense of chance and hurry, suggesting the quick duplication and dissemination of images.5 Additionally, expressivity is, in a sense, absent from the images themselves. Public expectation forces the face of the politician's wife into a perpetual, meaningless smile, while shock renders the widow as inexpressive and numb as one of Warhol's somnambulant superstars. The two faces, perceived by Warhol as equally unreal, have been further sapped of meaning by the mythologizing American culture and the techniques of reproduction, and are finally emptied of meaning by the artist's stylization.
1 See Andy Warhol and Pat Hackett, PoPism: The Warhol '60s (New York and London: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1980), p. 36.
2 Ibid., p. 60.
3 Andy Warhol, The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (New York and London: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1975), p. 27.
4 Warhol, PoPism, p. 50. It is interesting to note that 16 Jackies ignited the passion of a vandal who inscribed the words "HOGWASH/USA" on the panel third from the top on the leftmost column and "BLACK" on the panel second from the top on the rightmost column in ballpoint pen in November 1967; the inscriptions were successfully removed by Daniel Goldreyer in New York by late January 1968.
5 Warhol describes the silkscreening process he used, which allowed him to turn the work of reproducing the design over to Gerard Malanga and other assistants: "You pick a photograph, blow it up, transfer it in glue onto silk, and then roll ink across it so the ink goes through the silk but not through the glue. That way you get the same image, slightly different each time. It was all so simple-quick and chancy;" Warhol, PoPism, p. 22.