Abstract Controversy


This painting was commissioned and displayed in a public building in the 1960s. It immediately aroused ire and controversy and disgust. Can you guess why?

Answer after the jump.

1966: Robert Motherwell executes large mural for the John F. Kennedy Federal Building, Boston, MA.

From Time magazine ["Assassination in Boston," (August 26, 1966)]:

"The abstract mural in Boston's new John F. Kennedy Federal Building is a full 180 sq. ft., cost $25,000, and was simply titled by its painter, Robert Motherwell, New England Elegy. But it did not remain that for long. Up on the wall last week it became everyone's Rorschach. Office workers began to see in the top black band the outlines of a gun stock. Then reports got around that the title was actually The Tragedy of President Kennedy's Death.

Where did it all lead? To the experts, of course. Shown a photograph of the painting, Boston Museum of Fine Arts Assistant Curator Thomas N. Maytham noting the massive angular shapes, suggested that "one black blotch may represent the profile of the President's head, a very direct and specific depiction of the most brutal moment of the tragedy, when Kennedy was struck by the bullet. The lines near the 'profile,' " he said, "represent either the trajectory of the bullets or spatters of blood. It is hideous in one sense," he concluded, "because it doesn't try to walk around the issues." Which was more than Maytham could claim when he later recanted, pleading ignorance of the actual title.

By that time, though, the only one who couldn't see something in the painting was the artist himself. Fumed Motherwell: "The painting is totally abstract. It is not a picture of Kennedy's death, but an elegy, which is an expression of grief for someone dead, like a requiem mass." Motherwell should know. It is the 104th elegy that he has painted in the past 18 years, and nobody has ever admitted seeing anything in one before."

     Posted By: Paul - Sun Oct 20, 2013
     Category: Art | Confusion, Misunderstanding, and Incomprehension | Death | Politics | 1960s

Ah, The power of suggestion!
Posted by Tyrusguy on 10/20/13 at 08:52 AM
Because some politician paid $40,000 for it?
Ah... I was off by $15,000. :red:
Posted by Expat47 in Athens, Greece on 10/20/13 at 09:34 AM
Thought it was because it was ugly and public money paid for it. The truth is more interesting though.
Posted by Patty in Ohio, USA on 10/20/13 at 10:00 AM
Pareidolia. It reminds me of the ambiguous figure illusions in psychology. What we see is heavily influenced by what we expect to see. I see two monkeys rappelling from the top of a mushroom cloud. What do you see?
Posted by tadchem on 10/20/13 at 10:20 AM
Gross overspending on some piece of crap just because someone labled it 'art'.
Posted by Expat47 in Athens, Greece on 10/20/13 at 10:43 AM
A piece of art that misses the point of an elegy, at that. The Requiem Mass, for one, is certainly not abstract. And one hundred and four of these things? Daft.
Posted by Richard Bos on 10/21/13 at 07:09 AM
I see a female centaur talking to an Australian aborigine, mostly covered by the top black band.
Posted by RobK on 10/21/13 at 11:39 AM
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