While the crowd wasn’t too large in the Yale University Art Gallery’s new exhibit “A Great Crowd Had Gathered: JFK in the 1960s,” it probably should have been. Although the exhibition itself is small — just one room with fewer than two dozen photographs — it succeeds in telling the story of John F. Kennedy as a cultural icon, both alive and in his memory.
Tucked away in a corner on the gallery’s fourth floor, the exhibit space is characterized by different shades of blue — the Democratic Party color — and sleek, gray writing. A timeline runs above the photographs, listing important events that occurred in relation to Kennedy’s impact across the ’60s. The timeline serves as a guide to how the exhibit should be viewed, and following my natural inclination, I began by viewing the image below the “1960” label.
The first work may have been the most powerful. Garry Winogrand’s “John F. Kennedy, Democratic National Convention, Los Angeles” focuses on Kennedy’s broad back as he is televised. Though the image does not directly capture the audience — all of America on TV — the vast presence, and power, of the unseen multitudes is clearly felt. In the foreground of the image, a television behind Kennedy’s legs presents his face so that the viewer sees the man in the same way as a supporter of the time would have seen him. We thus become a part of the unseen, yet implied, audience. A modern viewer with knowledge of the violence that awaits Kennedy, however, would describe the work as having a foreboding undertone, but I believe that at the time it would have been received as a hopeful image. The bright light of the television camera could be seen as illuminating a path for change.
Continuing through 1961 and 1962, images of Kennedy’s supporters hang under announcements of the major events that characterized his presidency — the Bay of Pigs, the announcement of his plan to put a man on the moon, the Cuban Missile Crisis.
The images of 1963 range from the expected — photographs from the fatal assassination in Dallas and of Lyndon Johnson’s taking the oath next to Jackie Kennedy — to more intimate, poignant pictures of the constituents he left behind.
One particularly striking photograph by Diane Arbus depicts Marguerite Oswald, the assassin’s mother. The image, which ran in Esquire Magazine, presents a woman dressed in every way to appear put together and refined, but to me the effort seemed contrived and as a result, lacks believability. Juxtaposed with Jackie Kennedy’s elegance, the portrait is jarring. In a style typical of Arbus, Marguerite’s vulnerability shines through. The inclusion of this piece in an exhibit devoted to Kennedy may seem counterintuitive — even potentially insulting — but in examining the multiple dimensions of Kennedy’s role as a cultural icon, the image captures the mystique surrounding his complicated narrative as one extending beyond the individual.
Interestingly, Kennedy’s involvement with Vietnam is absent from the exhibit. But given the limited size of the space, perhaps depictions of his involvement with and the fallout from the war throughout the decade would have been too overwhelming.
The final image leaves the viewer with a sense of hope. At the John F. Kennedy Space Center, a crowd is gathered with their eyes toward the sky, their arms waving at something outside the frame. With the 1969 moon landing, one of Kennedy’s long-reaching goals is accomplished. In the foreground, a woman who is turned away from the crowd is taking a photograph of her own.