Bobby Kennedy/Roy Lichtenstein, 2013 Oil on linen 28 × 20 inches
Bobby Kennedy/Roy Lichtenstein, 2013
Oil on linen 28 × 20 inches

I have a deep reverence for not only Warhol, but also Roy Lichtenstein, the great pop artist who appropriated comic book images, and also for Bobby Kennedy, JFK’s brother, who was even more impassioned and idealistic than his brother later in his life. Teaching comics at the School of Visual Arts, I always discuss and stress the idea of "suturing into" a character when you draw it—a classic example of this is when you are drawing a character that is smiling and you find yourself smiling too—at this point you KNOW you are drawing well and "acting" the character, alchemizing them with ink the way a puppeteer might with their puppet. Post Warhol and Lichtenstein, who were making Duchampian maneuvers by appropriating "low" comic art and reclaiming them as fine art images—not wholly ironically, as embracing their formal and semiotic importance, I feel what I can bring to the table is to reclaim, within a paradigmatic practice, the warm notion of masking into the character I’m portraying, making not only a claim to the symbolic importance of the image, but also to try to revitalize the figure within the image, like a Frankenstein monster, bringing it back to life.

Lichtenstein had a career of almost exclusively appropriating his imagery, finessing it into perfection from original sources, changing it as not only rendered in paint from a page or other source, but making it into a perfected graphic sign. Interestingly, this image he did as a TIME magazine cover, just one week before Bobby Kennedy was assassinated, was not from a comic image, but from a photo he made into a comic-like image for a magazine, bringing back his practice to the primary role of a cartoonist/illustrator, making an illustration for a cover of a magazine to celebrate this new "pop" presidential candidate. It was also a prescient image, as it appears as if, in retrospect, that Kennedy is in shock, with a glowing explosion appearing behind his head, that looks very much like photos of this great would-be leader just after he was attacked in a California hotel after he one the primary elections in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel. After the assassinations, TIME commissioned Lichtenstein once again, this time creating a hand holding a pistol straight at the viewer on their cover, to discuss this and other assignations. Although each was a single image, and therefore technically illustration, as the magazine covers had subsequent images by the artist, within the paradigm of the magazine’s release, it was akin to a two panel subject-to-subject comic narrative-Kennedy looking shocked from the attack of an assassin’s gun. As Lichtenstein usually also made images that were only loosely relevant to the time by metonymic association, this image was unusual as it had direct significance to both the young candidate and just later, his murder.

While painting this, I wanted to reclaim the life of Kennedy through the cartoon. It took me a long while to render the image, using a grid system I use when painting from the photos, I painstakingly painted each of the "Ben-day dots" counting each to equate what was in the original image, listening to dense biographies of Bobby Kennedy, in addition to the music he loved most, including his favorite "Man of La Mancha"—deeply loaded as it is of course about Don Quixote, and who could be more "quixotic" than Bobby Kennedy, yearning to right the wrongs of the past, a utopic thinker for peace, prosperity, and equality for all after first being more of a hawkish, paranoid protector of his brother and stalwart against the mob, Humphrey, but also against Communism and bullish towards what was to be deemed the Red Scare. Ultimately it is a sad story as I think he would have made a terrific president, and would have continued to lead the nation into a much more productive direction than when his likely road to presidency was stopped in its tracks. The advantage of iconic images, according to Scott McCloud’s great Understanding Comics is that you can relate and "suture into" the character that you are portraying. What was interesting and moving for me was to have an empathic relationship to Bobby Kennedy as a character, and this lexicon of history, was being able to empathically cathect while painting this iconic image of him in a similar manner of a cartoonist bringing their comic book character to hopefully bring the image to life.