Rauschenberg’s Homage to JFK

A portrait of a president transformed by tragedy

Robert Rauschenberg, Retroactive I, 1963, oil and silkscreen-ink print on canvas, 213.4 x 152.4 cm (Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art) All works © Robert Rauschenberg. Speakers: Patricia Hickson, Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art and Dr. Steven Zucker

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Rauschenberg, Retroactive I


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Key points

  • The figure of John F. Kennedy evokes the dramatic technological, social, and political changes of the 1960s. Elected to the presidency in 1960, Kennedy’s youthful vitality signaled hope and ambition for a new era of progress, epitomized by the U.S. space program. The devastating impact of his assassination in 1963 left the nation in mourning. It was the onset of the violence and unrest that would characterize much of the decade.
  • Silkscreening provides an efficient method of duplicating images, and allowed Rauschenberg to incorporate photography taken from popular media directly into his artworks. Rauschenberg’s use of this technique challenged the idea that fine art should demonstrate an artist’s technical skill and focused attention on the power and multiplicity of images in mid-twentieth century America.
  • Robert Rauschenberg’s use of recognizable imagery from popular culture signals a shift away from the Abstract Expressionist art of Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock and reconnected fine art with the actual world.
  • While Rauschenberg wanted to show what was “outside my window,” the clustering of seemingly unrelated images incorporated in the painting remains more suggestive and open to interpretation than a straightforward illustration of the world.

Go Deeper

Learn more about this object from the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art

Learn more about Robert Rauschenberg by watching a documentary, a short video, or exploring his archive

Learn more about the Space Race

Watch or read a transcript of the 1962 speech where Kennedy promises that the United States will land humans on the moon

Find out more about the assassination of President Kennedy and its impact on the U.S.

Learn more about E.A.T. (Experiments in Art and Technology)

How is screenprinting done?

Search the LIFE photo archive

More to think about

We value a painting by Leonardo da Vinci in part because of his craftsmanship—he could really paint! Does this still apply to art made today? What is the role of craftsmanship in the era of Instagram filters and Etsy?

Explore the diverse history of the United States through its art. Seeing America is funded by the Terra Foundation for American Art and the Alice L. Walton Foundation.