HARTFORD, CONN. — In 1963, Robert Rauschenberg sent some photographs culled from magazines — including a photo of John F. Kennedy — to a commercial silk-screen fabricator. The 1960 Kennedy photograph showed the then-senator, who had since become president, gesturing emphatically during a debate with President Richard M. Nixon.
Rauschenberg gave instructions about how much he wanted the photographs magnified and what size to make the overall silk-screen print. The fabricator grafted transparencies of the photographs onto mesh screens coated with photo emulsion, then sent the screens back to Rauschenberg.
The year 1963 was productive for Rauschenberg. In the spring, the Jewish Museum in New York gave him his first museum retrospective. Around the same time, he staged an audacious performance at a roller-skating rink. Wearing stretched parachute silk on his back, he and other performers glided around to a collage of sounds from radio and television, interspersed with music by Handel and Haydn.
Things were going splendidly.
Then, in the fall, everything turned to ashes. His father died suddenly from a heart attack, at the age of 60. Rauschenberg then had to go on a tour of the American Southwest with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, with whom he often collaborated. From the road, he penned an artist’s statement punctuated by single-word descriptions of things he saw through the window. “I find it nearly impossible free ice to write about jeep axle my work,” it began.
The tour was not yet over when Rauschenberg learned that Kennedy had been assassinated. He was devastated. He had intended to use his image of Kennedy in a series of new silk-screen paintings. But now he wasn’t sure. What would be the effect? How would the work be received?
He decided to go ahead.
To make “Retroactive I,” which is in the collection of the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Conn., Rauschenberg forced blue paint through the silk screen with a squeegee, imprinting the image of Kennedy onto canvas. He liked the force of the candidate’s pointing hand, so he repeated it slightly to the left. Using different colors, he then added other silk-screened images — of an astronaut (Rauschenberg loved the space program), a crate of oranges, a walking female nude, a construction site, a glass of water. With his own hand, he added abstract brushstrokes, splashes and drips.
Rauschenberg liked the idea of operating in (as he put it) the space between art and life. “I want my paintings to look like what’s going on outside my window rather than inside my studio,” he said. He was trying to evoke the way things press in on our consciousness. Concussed by world events gleaned from the news, we look out the window and see a fruit stand or a construction site. A glass of water stands on the countertop.
None of it adds up. Except — possibly? — when funneled into art.
“Retroactive I” is one of eight works made by Rauschenberg in 1963-1964 incorporating the Kennedy image. Homages to the president, these works also became, in the wake of his killing, memorials.
Andy Warhol responded to JFK’s assassination with a 1964 series of silk-screen paintings of Jacqueline Kennedy, whose face he isolated and then repeated. Both Warhol and Rauschenberg were interested in the nature of mechanical and photographic reproduction. But Rauschenberg was less fixated. Where Warhol was captivated by commerce, branding and the dynamics of celebrity creation, Rauschenberg was more open to other aspects of life.
He loved placing his chosen images into suggestively dissonant — or surprisingly harmonious — contexts. What he did to the images was no less important than their contexts. Even as he built up layers, often brushing paint onto silk-screened images, he worked back into the surface by rubbing and scrubbing. In these ways, as the art historian Richard Meyer has pointed out, he created a dynamic of “presence and absence, shallowness and depth, transparency and opacity.”
Rauschenberg’s temperament was sunny; his default mood was optimism. But after Kennedy’s assassination, he became more overtly political. In some ways, “Retroactive I” can look nostalgic. In others, it captures exactly how we are today: present, but (through our phones) frantically elsewhere. Briefly concerned, but ultimately heedless. Constantly stimulated but, in some deeper, hard-to-access part of us, disastrously numb.