Murals: Assassination in Boston

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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 'pro file,' " 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.