Andy Warhol: Always America’s Most Wanted

Andy Warhol: Always America’s Most Wanted

Andy Warhol (1927-1968) was born to put the cat among the pigeons. And in 1964 he did it BIG time, causing a scandal at the New York World’s Fair that a new exhibition at the Queens Museum finally puts into perspective.

Warhol was one of several artists (Robert Indiana and Robert Rauschenberg, among them) commissioned by Philip Johnson, architect of the New York State Pavilion at the World’s Fair, to create works for the pavilion. Warhol’s piece was to be displayed on the building’s façade; its subject matter and form was left to him to decide. Surprisingly, an idea did not come easily to the young artist until one day, visiting a friend, he saw a copy of a police brochure of mug shots, The 13 Most Wanted Men. Inspired (the bad-boy element appealed to the iconoclast in Warhol), he reproduced the criminal suspects in large-scale, mounted them on Masonite and installed the panels as a mosaic on the pavilion’s exterior. But not for long.

The powers-that-be decreed Warhol’s work unacceptable, and within a few days of being installed on April 15, 1964, the mosaic of front and profile views of Italian- and Irish-American suspects was painted over with silver house paint. A large silver square was all that remained to welcome fairgoers to the pavilion.

It is said that New York’s governor, Nelson A. Rockefeller, in the running for the 1964 Republican Party presidential nomination and fearing a social/ethnic backlash to the Warhol piece, was behind the desecration. Given Rockefeller’s status as an art connoisseur, collector and arts benefactor (you can’t visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Museum of Modern Art without being aware of how both have benefited from his largesse), this is difficult to believe. Unless, of course, political ambition trumped aesthetics this one time. The problem most likely lay in Warhol’s work itself, which elevated criminality to art, glorified crime doers and coated it all with a (for that period unacceptable) homoerotic varnish.

Surprisingly, given Warhol’s taste for publicity, the incident went unreported in the press. The general public was, for the most part, in the dark. Until now.

Using archival material, photographs, documents, artworks (including another set of the Most Wanted Men paintings made later in the summer of 1964), 13 Most Wanted Men: Andy Warhol and the 1964 World’s Fair examines one of the least-known and most unsavory art “happenings” of the Swinging Sixties. For fans of Andy Warhol, it’s another must-see.

>> 13 Most Wanted Men: Andy Warhol and the 1964 World’s Fair, Queens Museum, New York City Museum, Flushing Meadows Corona Park, Queens, 718.592.9700, on view thru Sept. 7