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Artists Address the Women at the Heart of JFK's Assassination

Marilyn Monroe and Jackie O star in videos, paintings, and performance art about the cultural impact and political legacy of the JFK assassination.

At this point in history, the mystery surrounding the JFK assassination has become something of its own metaverse, as the culture of conspiracy has produced a dynamic dimension quite separate from federal investigations into the killing’s actual circumstances. Visual, theatrical, and experimental media artists have been—and continue to be—the chief perpetrators of the historical fictions which use the events of November 22, 1963 as a launch pad for a broader, wider, and deeper deconstruction of media and celebrity culture, national identity, and generational psychology. As this field proves perennially fertile, many of this year’s commemorations highlight the curious fact that so much JFK “assassination art” focuses not on the presidential victim or even on the shooter(s), but on the drama’s leading ladies, Jackie and Marilyn.

Painter Rosson Crow’s first foray into filmmaking, for example, is Madame Psychosis Holds a Séance, now on view at LA’s Honor Fraser Gallery through December 19. Crow is known primarily for large-scale paintings in which elaborately decorated masterpieces of kitschy architecture are rendered in limited palette, depopulated and in various stages of neglect. Several such majestically dusty and haunted interiors form the centerpiece of the short film, whose surreal, color-saturated sets Crow designed and created herself. Crow was born in 1982 in Dallas, a fact which, while rendering the killing remote in time, clearly preserves its presence in her consciousness.

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Rosson Crow: Still from Madame Psychosis Holds a Séance

Starring Kelly Lynch as a slightly worse-for-the-wear 60s-era singer whose fragile, careworn platinum blonde, red-lipsticked beauty deliberately evokes latter-day Marilyn Monroe, the film shows the existential meltdown of Madame Psychosis upon hearing the news of the death through TV and newspaper. She moves with an awkward, dream-logic elegance through the stages of grief, chain-smoking at Ouija boards, the phonecalls to prove he loved her in real life not only her imagination, the gorgeous, taunting mountain of roses delivered to his widow rather than her own lonely bungalow, that bury her in a nightmare, the creeping in of self-doubt, the descent into madness.

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Rosson Crow: Installation view of Madame Psychosis Holds a Séance at Honor Fraser

Cinematic in a different way, the avant-garde movie-buff heaven that is LA Filmforum pulled together a program of rare gems from a variety of film and museum archives, looking at more contemporaneous artistic responses—not only to the events themselves, but to the specific ways in which first the media then the American public processed the trauma and gingerly began to construct its meaning. Works made between 1964 and 1970 by Bruce Conner, Robert Drew, Robert Russett, Ant Farm and others used strategies from surrealist animation to documentary to found footage pastiche—themselves new formal frontiers for an art world that was already having its own revolution in style and media before 11/22/63.

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Robert Drew: Faces of November

In fact, Faces of November by Robert Drew—more or less the godfather of modern American cinéma vérité—was the unpredicted third installment in a documentary series on the election in which Drew had already been following the candidates (and Jackie) around with unprecedented access. Faces of November, much like Paul Fusco’s well-known photographs of the people gathered along the railroad tracks to witness brother RFK’s funeral train procession just a few years later, tells the story through the emotions crowding the faces of the people at the president’s funeral.

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Paul Fusco: RFK Funeral Train, 1968

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Bruce Conner: Television Assassination installation view

Bruce Conner’s classic work Report, though not a long piece, wasn’t shown until some four years later, which he blames on the length of time it took him to fully process the events and their cultural consequences. His Television Assassination was a longer and in some ways more ambitious undertaking and wasn’t completed or shown until 1975. Like all Conner’s seminal video-based works, his true, perennial subject is the unnoticed degree to which the media, especially the television of his day (though one can’t help but extrapolate his observations for the modern internet- and cable news-saturated society) distorts and propagandizes history. The JFK situation, with sad irony, offered Conner and artists of his ilk the perfect readymade content and context to test their theories on media and national identity.

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Karen Finley in The Jackie Look

Visual, performance, and literary icon of punk-wave feminism Karen Finley was also in LA around the anniversary of the assassination, for both the opening of her painting and drawing show Love Field at Coagula Curatorial, as well as the coinciding inauguration of the Broad Museum’s performance art programs with her seminal work, The Jackie Look. The latter is based on the Warhol portraits of Jackie at the funeral which grace the Broad’s permanent collection. Having almost nothing to do with the man’s death itself, the work is a pull-no-punches commentary on the degree to which her family tragedy became the property of everyone in the world, her privacy trampled, her life turned into the stuff of morbid, awful legend while she was still trying to live it. That, plus the role of fashion, beauty, and merchandise in fanning those endlessly televised flames.

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Andy Warhol: 20 Jackies, 1964. Courtesy of The Broad

In the Love Field show, Finley brings together paintings and drawings from diverse but interrelated series examining the public rituals Jackie was forced to endure during what ought to have been a time of private grieving, including the famous red roses, the endless replaying of the famous Abraham Zapruder home-movies of the murder itself and its most famous aspect—Jackie’s pink suit—and always, somewhere, the equally haunting phantom of Marilyn Monroe.

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Karen Finley at Coagula Curatorial

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Karen Finley at Coagula Curatorial

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