Fifty years ago, Andy Warhol was an emerging Pop artist-provocateur when he incited controversy at the 1964 New York World’s Fair with his work, 13 Most Wanted Men. Warhol and nine other artists were commissioned to produce art for the Philip Johnson New York State Pavilion. According to Andy Warhol, Philip Johnson gave him the assignment to produce a creation for the building’s exterior; a public space rather than an art gallery.
Taking inspiration from Marcel Duchamp’s 1923 work, Wanted $2,000 Reward (based on a joke notice for tourists), Warhol selected images from an NYPD booklet that contained 13 of the most wanted convicts of 1962. The projected work was to represent “something to do with New York.”
The 20-foot tiled Masonite mural was composed of mug shots – frontal and profile views – of the convicts. It was installed by April 15, 1964, and within days of the fair’s opening, officials had it whitewashed with aluminum-silver house paint. When Warhol went to preview the mural, all that was visible was “the images faintly coming through the paint.” Once the fair opened to the public, all that was detectable on the pavilion’s exterior was a large silver square.
Confusion surrounds the true motive for the whitewash. It has been said that it may have been a “political thing,” but Warhol was relieved because he would have felt “responsible if one of the criminals ever got turned into the FBI.”
As a replacement, Warhol offered to show 25 portraits of the fair organizer, Robert Moses. He was rebuffed, and the pavilion’s façade remained silver throughout the entire World’s Fair.
In the summer of ’64, undeterred by the scandal, Andy Warhol created 20 Most Wanted Men paintings with the screens used from the World’s Fair mural. Warhol still had the originals, so he decided to go forward with the paintings. He deemed it safer for the criminals because with “the kind of exposure they’d get at the Factory,” would not lead to their capture.
The 13 Most Wanted Men paintings will be on view at the Queens Museum from April 27 through September 7, 2014. The lofty space reserved for the exhibit was once the World’s Fair ice rink, overlooking Flushing Meadows-Corona Park. Moreover, the museum is within yards of the original mural site, making the exhibit especially significant. The exhibit also presents two Warhol films, 13 Most Beautiful Boys (1965) inspired by his paintings from the World’s Fair, and his 1964, Empire. These films are some of the earliest examples of Warhol’s Screen Test series.
With Andy Warhol artworks always put on view around the world, the show’s curator, Larissa Harris stated that she wanted the exhibit to have a “tight historical focus” with the connection between Warhol and the World’s Fair, or else, “there’s no reason to have a Warhol show in Queens.”
Warhol’s 13 Most Wanted Men is often deemed a deviation from his familiar Pop art culture; however, it is closely linked to other works made during that time. The 13 Most Wanted Men work is only the platform for the exhibit to provide insight into an important juncture of Warhol’s career. The exhibit draws on the connection that forced the mural’s destruction during the World’s Fair to Andy Warhol’s milieu – how it served for and in opposition to the “Establishment,” as exemplified in New York State governor Nelson Rockefeller, master builder, Robert Moses, and architect, Philip Johnson.
By: Dawn Levesque