In the spring of 1968 Robert F. Kennedy was running an insurgent antiwar candidacy for the presidency of the United States. Late to declare and hobbled by an archaic nominating system (the Democratic Party primaries would be dramatically revamped and expanded for 1972), the slain president’s younger brother had nonetheless managed to garner huge attention, win a string of state contests, and — some argue — position himself for an outside chance of taking his party’s nomination.
To capture the frenetic youthful energy of RFK’s campaign, Time magazine commissioned a cover image from celebrated pop artist Roy Lichtenstein. Already an art-world star by 1968, Lichtenstein’s signature technique adapted the colors, subjects, and technique of comic books and newspaper cartoons for his paintings. For his mid-May Kennedy cover, Lichtenstein portrayed the senator declaiming at a podium, framed by a red-white-and-blue background and haloed by a dynamic yellow sunburst.
It was a striking image, and soon a creepily prescient one. Three weeks after the issue appeared, Bobby Kennedy was dead — shot in the head just after giving a televised speech at just such a podium. (One famous photo taken after the shooting recapitulates the cover image in an unsettling way.)
Shortly after the assassination Time ran another Lichtenstein cover, and the second image is a sibling of the first — same primary-color palette, same use of oversized Ben-Day dots to indicate skin tone, same black steel and yellow mist. In this case, however, the steel is not that of a bank of microphones, and the slash of yellow at the heart of the image is not a sunburst. The steel is a pistol pointed at the reader, and the yellow is smoke rising from its barrel.
Time magazine had planned a cover story on gun violence in America prior to the RFK assassination, and commissioned the two Lichtenstein pieces on a single contract. According to the artist, he painted both at the same time and submitted them to the magazine simultaneously.
Though the covers were painted in tandem, they were not intended to be seen that way. Their thematic connection did not yet exist when they were requested, when they were completed, or when the first of the two was published. When the second appeared on newsstands the first was not at the front of anyone’s mind.
Today the gun cover is remembered occasionally, the Kennedy cover almost never. I’m a fairly close student of Robert Kennedy’s career, a scholar of the sixties, and a fan of Lichtenstein’s art, and I had never seen the two covers together — or known their story — until two weeks ago. (I stumbled across the RFK image while Googling the assassination after an episode of Mad Men, then searched “lichtenstein time magazine” in an effort to confirm it was the artist’s work. The gun cover popped up in that search.)
The diptych is not famous, but I think it deserves to be. Viewed together now, the two paintings sum up the delirious, discombobulated year in which they appeared — the year of the the Tet Offensive, Johnson’s withdrawal, the King assassination and the unrest that followed, the Paris uprising and the Prague spring, the Chicago convention police riots, the Wallace presidential campaign, the Mexico City Olympics, and Richard Nixon’s election — as few images do.