Warhol's Allegorical Look at Kennedy Assassination

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Andy Warhol once looked at John F. Kennedy's assassination with incredulity: "It seemed like no matter how hard you tried, you couldn't get away from the thing." He could have been talking about how the press, the politicians and the people are feeding off the Clinton-Lewinsky affair today.

"Andy Warhol's Flash - - - - November 22, 1963," which opened at the National Portrait Gallery Friday, begs two important questions: How would the pop-culture pioneer have handled today's White House scandals? And conversely, would today's media and the public be as voyeuristic with the Kennedy shooting as in the early 1960s?

Still, such questions don't begin to explain this fabulous exhibit. "Flash" expresses a supreme example of pop culture gone awry, an allegorical "Frankenstein Meets Wolfman" for the elite. After the very human President Kennedy was dead, his heroic image reached monstrous proportions, much of it his wife's doing. In the National Portrait Gallery exhibit, in polite but subtle, satiric terms, Mr. Warhol sneers not so much at the Kennedys as at the image-makers, the media.

Despite the exhibit's role of art as commentary, one cannot escape the overall emptiness of the actual assassination and its result. Fourteen prints fill the small first-floor room. Although curator Ann Prentice Wagner intended to focus on Mr. Warhol's incredulity toward the media coverage, white walls vs. the gray carpet echoes the hollowness of Mr. Kennedy's death. The absence of any actual depictions of the shooting only calls more attention to the violence.

Once again, we see why Mr. Warhol was perfect for the '60s. Coming off the heels of the staid 1950s, the still-conservative atmosphere of the early '60s would have made it unthinkable to treat such a horrible act as a subject for artistic expression. Yet Mr. Warhol does, going over the top with bright, solid colors, geometric arrangement and mixed messages.

The 14 prints, part of the gallery's permanent collection, are 21-by-21-inch color silk-screens. On a pedestal in the center of the room is an unfolding account of the assassination, written for the series by reporter Phillip Greer. This chilling black-and-white narrative is a stark contrast to the colorful silk-screens. This is highly unusual for Mr. Warhol, who relied more on visual image than text.

What gallery staff found even more ironic was the timing of this series. Mr. Warhol first printed "Flash" in 1967. He published it in 1968. Not only was that the year Martin Luther King and Mr. Kennedy's brother Robert were assassinated, but Mr. Warhol himself was shot on June 3, 1968 - two days before the death of the younger Kennedy.

The first print is a silvery black-and-gray print of the grinning Kennedy, at such close range as to be indistinguishable. The eyes, nose and mouth are all we can barely make out, as if the four days of continuous TV, newspaper and radio coverage of Mr. Kennedy's death and funeral was too in-your-face for Mr. Warhol to digest.

The third print, bathed in a bluish green, shows the president and Jacqueline Kennedy, with a flash of Texas Gov. …