By Olivier Mesley, Scott Grant Barker, David M. Lubin, Alexander Nemerov and Nicola Longford
Yale University Press
112 pages, $25
By Anthony Bannon
News Book Reviewer
How odd this rearview mirror, sharpening its focus into half a century ago, seen through the medium of a thin, tall book, its cover rimmed in blood red, calling itself “Hotel Texas,” as if it were a seedy novel … And then the subtitle: “An Art Exhibition for the President and Mrs. John F. Kennedy;” yes, stranger still.
The back cover of the book locates the subject: Nov. 22, 1963, Jack seen in a press photograph holding himself stiffly, a tired smile to the camera, Jackie looking away, wearing that pill box hat and carrying an armful of roses, just arriving at Love Field, Dallas, after a flight of 13 minutes, covering all of 30 miles, from Fort Worth.
They had traveled to Fort Worth the day before, arriving just before midnight. More than 5,000 awaited Air Force One at Carswell Air Force Base, dress hats, handmade signs, a Confederate and a Texas flag, a letter sweater and women with scarves over their hair. Another crowd of 3,500 welcomed them downtown at the Hotel Texas, where the president and the first lady would spend their last night of just several hours in Suite 850. The next morning at 9 a.m. the president addressed a $3 (sic) a person breakfast audience of 2,000 in the hotel’s Grand Ballroom. They gave him a 10-gallon hat that he never put on his head. The president was famous for eschewing hats.
Suite 850 was the second-best accommodation in the hotel. The best was reserved for the Texan native son, Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson. Five days before the president and vice president arrived, a young executive from Bell Helicopter Co. learned of this lodging inequity, and thought of a way to even out the scales.
Owen Day, a trade show designer for Bell, rallied several Fort Worth civic leaders who knew art and had the connections to quickly summon the finest painting and sculpture in the city, paintings and sculpture from both private and public sources: Only the best – paintings by Vincent Van Gogh, Thomas Eakins and Claude Monet; sculpture by Pablo Picasso and Henry Moore; and drawings, too, by Morris Graves and John Marin – 16 works in all by as many artists.
Owen Day’s zeal resulted in an installation of renowned artists with precious little in common. The work graced – and that is a useful word - graced the walls and table tops of a “nondescript” three-room suite with even less “descript” furniture.
Fifty years later, the directors of the Dallas Museum of Art and the Amon Carter Museum of Art in Fort Worth set out to gather again those 16 works of art for an exhibition that would coincide with the tragedy that awaited the nation’s young leader. The purpose of this exhibition would be to “encapsulate something both permanent and uplifting in the face of an increasingly strident and harried mass culture in the early 21st century” and “remind us that there is always more to a tragedy than the headlines.”
The museums located 13 of the pieces, and this book is the interpretive catalog of their showing, through Jan. 12 in Fort Worth, having closed Sept. 15 in Dallas.
The organizers’ claims for the exhibition amplify the still heartfelt wounds of the region and the reparations of its proud people.
The exhibition and book, while piquant, surely are less than the “rare intersection between art and tragedy,” that its producers claim, just as its effects are likely less fermented than the “life-affirming counterpoint to painful memories and stigma,” also asserted by directors Maxwell L. Anderson of Dallas and Andrew J. Walker of Fort Worth.
The book employs five writers for its 112 pages, 74 photographic illustrations and 15 color plates representing the extant art (Claude Monet’s “Portrait of the Artist’s Daughter,” once in a private collection, has gone missing):
• Nicola Longford, director of the Sixth Floor Museum in Dallas, details a timeline of the 15½ hours in the two cities.
• Scott Grant Barker, a regional historian, accounts for the exhibition itself – “A symbolic embrace, an unplanned farewell … and a poignant reminder to us,” he avers.” It was, he continues, “the most private art exhibition in the history of the city.”
• Oliver Meslay, associate director of curatorial affairs, Dallas Museum of Art, establishes a context for Dallas, with other cities, such as Buffalo, which have outlived their tragedies, and Los Angeles and Memphis, which somehow sublimated theirs. He proposes that “To pay homage to the deceased president by invoking the highest manifestations of human genius – those by which he was surrounded during his last night on earth – is to remember what was best about those times without denying what was ignoble or ever ceasing to remember the tragic destiny of one man.”
• David M. Lubin, art professor, Wake Forest University, contributes a gently ironic association between Texas culture and the presumed international orientation of the Kennedys, while Alexander Nemerov, art and humanities professor, Stanford University, enjoins the famous Eakin’s oil, “Swimming,” a Fort Worth civic treasure installed above the president’s bed, on loan from the museum.
The cold facts of the matter, however, would note that the Kennedys hardly saw the exhibition at all. Exhausted upon their arrival, the couple acknowledged that they didn’t regard the installation as that of original art until the last minute before departure – just in time to phone one of the major collectors credited in a small catalog of the installation and confess their oversight and thank her for her generosity.
Like the potpourri of pictures in Room 850, this kindly little book is its own mélange, a cabinet of curiosities, strong signals – great art, famous people, tragic death - with only the faint commitment of passing glances: Noble intentions and civic pride notwithstanding.
This was fleeting time against the resounding marker of bullets at midday – that resounding moment to come in three hours. But just before leaving the Texas Hotel, Room 850, Jack Kennedy, three hours before dying, looked out of their hotel window, past the Thomas Eakins painting on the left, to see, eight floors below, outside in the parking lot bordered by two loan companies, two bus stations, a garage and a theater, a gathering crowd of admirers. Quoting William Manchester in his book of 1967, “The Death of a President,” the president exclaimed, “Gosh, look at the crowd!... Just look! Isn’t that terrific?” The Eakins, speculates the Stanford professor Nemerov, “left no special mark.”
Even so, this finely rendered slight book does call out another of the curiosities of life and death that seem to fill up humankind’s speculations about time, those moments when stars cross, when tragedy steps into joy and causes memory to skip a beat. This act of thoughtful kindness and respect for a man and a woman believed to deserve such consideration steps remarkably outside political persuasions and into a realm of good manners, particularly worthy of recall in our time of remarkably foul political hygiene.
Anthony Bannon is a former Buffalo News Art Critic and the current executive director of the Burchfield Penney Art Center.