Reactor

The Art JFK Saw Before He Died

by Kyle Chayka on September 25, 2012

Thomas Eakins, “The Swimming Hole” (1884–85), one of the paintings that was on view in JFK’s presidential suite.

This sounds like it should be a strange, ritualistic superstition or some kind of weird psychological study, but it’s not — the Dallas Museum of Art, in cooperation with the Amon Carter Museum of American Art, is commemorating the 50th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy with an exhibition that recreates the last selection of art the president saw before he was murdered.

JFK was staying at the Hotel Texas in Fort Worth the night before he was shot on November 22, 1963. The presidential suite at the hotel happened to be decorated with museum-quality work by a slew of famous artists including van Gogh, Monet, Eakins, and Picasso. The exhibition, Hotel Texas: An Art Exhibition for the President and Mrs. John F. Kennedy, which opens at the Dallas museum on May 26, 2013, creepily recreates that selection.

Does the last artwork a person saw before death tell something about them? Um, not really. JFK didn’t select the work on his own; it was chosen by a group of local art collectors specifically for the presidential couple. The story there is interesting in its own right, given that the local collectors (led by critic Owen Day) organized a three-part exhibition ranging through the parlor, master bedroom, and second bedroom. The exhibition included Thomas Eakins’ iconic oil painting “The Swimming Hole” (1884–85), Pablo Picasso’s bronze “Angry Owl,” Marsden Hartley’s “Sombrero with Gloves” (1936), and Vincent van Gogh’s oil painting “Road with Peasant Shouldering a Spade” (1887), all of which will be in the upcoming show. But then the point of going to this exhibition won’t even be to look at the art. The re-staged spectacle is all about JFK. Would the 1963 contents of an upscale hotel room be interesting if a US president hadn’t died the day after he stayed there? Not likely.

The museum will add historical context to the contents of the hotel room’s art installation, which the press release explains will include images of the suite before the president’s arrival and documentation of the assassination. The added ephemera underscores the point that the show will nail down a certain historical moment, but it doesn’t seem that the fetishization of a famous death will do the art on view any favors.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=560738411 Douglas Martin

    Looking forward to it since the Washington Post reported it last week. Amazing story despite the tragic ending. BTW, it’s called the Dallas Museum of Art not The Dallas Museum…

    • http://hragv.com Hrag Vartanian

      I think it’s macabre and fetishistic.

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