Fifty years ago on October 15, 1964, Americans got their first look at the F-111 fighter-bomber following its rollout from the General Dynamics hangar at Fort Worth, Texas. Built at enormous cost, the F-111 was hailed as the plane of the future for the Air Force and the Navy. “The F-111 is,” Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara declared, “a truly enormous advance in the art of military aircraft.”
McNamara was far too optimistic. Although the F-111 was eventually relied on by the Air Force, it began as an expensive disaster. In 1968 the first three F-111s launched in combat in the Vietnam War vanished, and in 1969 the entire fleet of 300 F-111s was grounded while a structural review of the planes took place.
Today what makes the F-111 memorable is that it inspired one of the masterpieces of American pop art—James Rosenquist’s 1964-65 F-111. As the art historian Michael Lobel has pointed out in his comprehensive study of Rosenquist in the ’60s, the political link between the plane and the painting was crucial from the start.
F-111 gained immediate notice when, on April 17, 1965, it was shown at the Leo Castelli Gallery in New York, then bought for a reported $60,000 by the collectors Robert and Edith Scull. After the Castelli Gallery show, which lasted through May 13, F-111 went on display at the Jewish Museum in New York, and soon after that, it began a European tour. Since then, F-111, which is now in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, has continued to draw huge audiences wherever it is shown.
Scale and subject matter guaranteed that F-111 would command attention. Ten feet high and 86 feet long, F-111 consists of 51 panels that show the silhouette of a jet flying through fragmented images taken primarily from magazine ads. The images include a Firestone tire, a frosted cake, a nuclear cloud, and a little girl beneath a hair dryer.
In an interview that he did for the Museum of Modern Art, Rosenquist, who once worked as a billboard painter, stressed the care he took selecting the images that appear in F-111.
“In the painting I incorporated orange spaghetti, cake, light bulbs, flowers, and many other things. It felt to me like a plane flying through the flak of an economy. The little girl was the pilot under a hair dryer. The swimmer gulping air was like searching for air during an atomic holocaust,” Rosenquist noted.
Rosenquist’s description reflects how sharply F-111 captures the fear of atomic war that Americans felt in 1964-65, when the 1962 Cuban missile crisis with the Soviet Union was still a fresh memory. In January 1964, audiences flocked to movie theaters to see Dr. Strangelove, Stanley Kubrick’s dark comedy about a maverick American general who leads the nation into nuclear war with the Soviet Union.
Later, the issue of nuclear fear became critical to the 1964 presidential campaign of Lyndon Johnson. Johnson used what was known as the “daisy” television ad to portray the Republican nominee, Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater, as a military hawk who, if elected, would threaten the world’s survival. The ad begins with a young girl counting the petals she is pulling off a daisy. Suddenly, her voice is interrupted by that of a man counting backwards to zero, at which point a mushroom cloud appears, followed by the written message, “Vote for President Johnson on Nov. 3. The stakes are too high for you to stay at home.”
One year later Johnson had gotten America so deeply involved in the Vietnam War that it would soon cost him his presidency and much of his Great Society program. By the late ’60s, F-111 was considered an antiwar painting by liberals and conservatives alike, but F-111 was never just a didactic painting or Rosenquist’s version of Picasso’s Guernica. As Rosenquist observed, “In the ’60s the painting was critically taken as an antiwar protest, but there were a multiplicity of ideas that caused its existence.”
F-111 justifies the decision the Metropolitan Museum of Art, under the direction of Thomas Hoving, made in 1968 when it put F-111 on display with three monumental paintings from its permanent collection: Nicolas Poussin’s The Rape of the Sabine Women (1633-34) Jacques Louis David’s The Death of Socrates (1787) and Emanuel Leutze’s Washington Crossing the Delaware (1851). In such company Rosenquist’s preoccupation with history painting was heightened, but so, too, was his sense that, for better or for worse, what distinguishes our times is a culture in which the images of the supermarket and the battlefield constantly vie for our attention.
Nicolaus Mills is professor of American studies at Sarah Lawrence College and author of the forthcoming book, Every Army Man Is with You: The Cadets Who Won the 1964 Army-Navy Game, Fought in Vietnam, and Came Home Forever Changed.