Artist: Robert Rauschenberg
Medium: Oil and silkscreen ink on canvas.
Citation: Robert Rauschenberg, Retroactive I. 1963. Oil and silkscreen ink on canvas. 84 x 60 in. Gift of Susan Morse Hilles. 1964.30. Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art/Art Resource, NY. Art © Estate of Robert Rauschenberg/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.
Rights Holder: Gift of Susan Morse Hilles. 1964.30. Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art/Art Resource, NY. Art © Estate of Robert Rauschenberg/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.
Engage! Theme: American Dreams
The central image of this painted and printed composition is a press photograph of John F. Kennedy taken at his presidential inauguration in 1961. JFK is surrounded by a combination of material culled from various printed sources and silk-screened onto the canvas.
Pop artist Robert Rauschenberg was known for his innovative combinations of media and borrowings from popular imagery. The borrowings in this work, which combines silk-screen printing and oil painting, demonstrate the role media images play in defining a national identity or mood; here they appear to evoke the patriotic optimism that prevailed in America at Kennedy’s inauguration.
For instance, Kennedy’s bold pledge that the United States would land a man on the moon within ten years is referenced in the top left image of an astronaut floating in space, and the theme of flight is echoed in the bird feathers suspended from the top of this work.
Yet this work was made the year following JFK’s 1963 assassination and can also remind the viewer of the country’s deep sadness about the loss of a great leader. The moon landing didn’t occur until 1969, well after the president’s death. Nevertheless, his dream for space travel had been realized.
On the lower left, Rauschenberg repeats the fragment of Kennedy’s pointing hand, emphasizing his gesture of presidential leadership that encouraged innovation and challenged Americans to do their best.
In the lower right is a blurred fragment of what looks like an Italian Renaissance image of Adam and Eve being expelled from Eden. The yellowed fruit opposite it may symbolize American abundance—possibly extending the allegory to the president pointing or leading the country out of the Garden of Eden and into great and unknown frontiers.
Pop Art is often seen as the bringing together of high art (such as Renaissance painting)—and popular culture (President Kennedy, the astronaut). Rauschenberg used popular imagery to reach beyond the art world elite and directly address a wide public, reflecting the populism of the rapidly changing 1960s era.
The title, Retroactive, may signal how Rauschenberg’s thinking about the work itself changed while he was working on it. The work, which Rauschenberg began while Kennedy was still alive, calls to mind the barrage of images Americans encounter every day. But after JFK’s assassination, Rauschenberg reconceived the image as an elegy to a lost president. Retroactive became a memorial to Kennedy after it was begun, laden with an air of nostalgia and mourning.
President John F. Kennedy is portrayed in the center of this image and there is an astronaut just above him. Identify another part of this collage and think about what it says about the president. Share with the larger group.
The images in this collage largely come from popular culture and media and are connected to JFK’s dreams for the American people—the central photo shows him on his inauguration day. What images from popular culture would you use to demonstrate the hopes and dreams of America today?
It’s hard to make out what some of the details or specific elements in this collage represent. In addition to using images from popular culture and media, why do you think the artist chose to use this technique? What might it say about American culture in the 1960s?
Further Discussion Questions and Activity Ideas:
This work of art was begun when JFK was newly elected, but reworked following his assassination in 1963. Rauschenberg created a number of similar works, all with the title Retroactive—this one is Retroactive I. Why do you think he used this title?
Compare Rauschenberg’s image to the Obama HOPE portrait and Gilbert Stuart’s portrait of Washington. What do Americans expect from our president? Our leaders? How do these leaders define or guide our shared dreams? Does a nation need strong leaders to define its dreams? What are your dreams for yourself, for your community, for your country? What dreams are held in common, and how do they come to be shared?
Create a collage using images from popular culture to demonstrate the hopes and dreams of America today. What dreams do you want to highlight? What images, people, or places help represent that dream?
Roni Feinstein, Robert Rauschenberg: The Silkscreen Paintings, 1962–64. With a contribution by Calvin Tomkins. (New York: Whitney Museum of Art, and Boston: Bullfinch Press, 1990).
John F. Kennedy, Profiles in Courage (1956).
Robert Dallek, An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917–1963 (2003).
History of the Apollo mission on NASA’s Web site (with links to additional resources and a link to audio versions of JFK’s speeches about space exploration).
Andrew Graham Dixon, “In the Picture,” Sunday Telegraph, Jan. 14, 2001.