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Art Exhibit Review: "Time Covers the 1960s" at the National Portrait Gallery

October 16, 2014 | 10:08pm EST

A boxy glass case containing a colossal, caricatured paper mache sculpture of the Beatles is a startling and intriguing greeting to the display of original cover art that graced TimeCovers the 1960s at the National Portrait Gallery. A photograph of the sculpture was published on the September 22, 1967 Time cover and was the genius of English cartoonist Gerald Scarfe (ironically his wife, Jane Asher, was former fiancé of Paul McCartney). Yet irony worked as one of the core themes of this unique exhibit. The display did graceful justice to the interplay between culture and politics characteristic of the time. The exhibit, which debuted on the second floor of the Portrait Gallery on September 26, is a tribute to the historic developments of the 1960s through a chronological, linear display of the original cover art from Time Magazine and features work from some of America’s most seminal artists of the day. The nature of the historic events of the era correlate directly to the Beatles figurines in the glass: eclectic, dynamic, and enormous.

The display, spanning two opposite walls with banners of Time’s signature red hue, begins on the left side with a handsome oil painting by Rene Bouche of John F. Kennedy that was featured in Time’s June 9, 1961 edition that marked his inauguration into office, as if to signal the start of a new era. Following the inaugural portrait by Bouche is a series of portraits featuring significant leaders of key political affairs, including the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War. Martin Luther King, Jr. is depicted alone and angled toward the right in a tempera portrait from January 3, 1963. Three paintings ahead is an oil painting of Roy Wilkins from August 30, 1963 with passionate African Americans rallying behind him. The placement of the portraits is not only chronological in time, but also suggests that King is looking forward toward Wilkins leading the NAACP as black activism begins to spread across the nation. The “face of defeat” of Lyndon Johnson portrayed by Pietro Annigoni in 1968 is shown close to, and in stark contrast with the calm disposition of then Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, both highly contested figures involved in the Vietnam War. Robert Vickrey and Bernard Safran, who were regularly commissioned to Time, chiefly painted these notable individuals. What is particularly striking is that though the 1960s was an incendiary decade, to say the least, none of the covers portrayed violence. Instead, expressions transitioned from jubilant to graying, colors evolved from bright to shadowy. These subtle touches spoke volumes by themselves and were driven by the ingenious artistic impressions of Time’s artists.

While the left side of the exhibit is dedicated solely to politics, the right is an appropriate tribute to the vibrant cultural phenomena of the generation. Roy Lichtenstein’s playful color block cartoons rose to prominence, and Charles Schultz introduced The World According to Peanuts. The bright, psychedelic colors reminiscent of Woodstock gave the collection an appropriate boost of energy and vivacity amongst the grim backdrop of the Cold War and political assassinations.

Though the display offered a comprehensive look at the relevant issues pertaining to the 1960s, the selection of several distinct covers for the exhibit seemed to be a subtle dig at the issues still at work in the US. The gun violence cover of June 21, 1968 that coincided with the assassination of Robert Kennedy speaks to the continual abuse of firearms today. The “Drugs and the Young” cover from September 26, 1969 that explored the youth’s newfound fascination with marijuana speaks to the recent legislative measures being made to legalize the drug. The cover that conveyed the start of the sexual revolution of the decade speaks to today’s societal movement towards gay marriage. In other words, the exhibit suggests that the 1960s are relevant now more than ever.

A look at the portrait of Neil Armstrong landing on the moon with the American flag in hand on the cover of the July 25, 1969 issue brings to mind his quote, “One small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.” In the context of the 1960s, many steps, variant in size, were made to cement the freedoms Americans enjoy today. The collection does a masterful job of intertwining the serious and jaunty and serves as a reminder that the past must be memorialized in order to fully enjoy the prosperities of the present.

The exhibit is available for viewing until August 9, 2015.

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