FIFTY years ago, the organizers of the 1964 New York World’s Fair were shocked when one of their chosen exhibitors unveiled the work of art, the first public work he had ever created, that he was planning to display. It was a 20-by-20-foot mural depicting the mugshots of the 13 most wanted criminals of 1962. Andy Warhol, whose creation it was, was one of ten artists, alongside Robert Rauschenberg, Roy Lichtenstein, John Chamberlain, Robert Indiana, Ellsworth Kelly and Claes Oldenburg, who had been commissioned to create a piece for the fair two years earlier.
“There are ten quite different murals on the pavilion”, declared Philip Johnson, the architect of the carousel-like space in which the fair was being held, “and this is one of the best”. But fair officials weren’t as enthusiastic and ordered that it be painted over less than three days after it had been presented on April 15th 1964. The only thing visitors could see when the fair officially opened to the public was a coat of silver paint.
“In one way I was glad the mural was gone,” Warhol wrote in his 1980 autobiography, “now I wouldn’t have to feel responsible if one of the criminals ever got turned in to the FBI because someone had recognized him from my pictures.”
In a twist of fate, the artwork that was expunged from the original fair is the one receiving the largest spotlight during the 50th anniversary festivities. Canvases depicting nine of the 13 most wanted men are the focus of an exhibition titled “13 Most Wanted Men: Andy Warhol and the 1964 World’s Fair” at the Queens Museum in New York. Although the original version of the mural was destroyed when it was painted over, Warhol, who was given around $4,000 or, in his words, “enough to have it silk screened” created canvases of the mugshots a few months later.
“Andy was certainly a very good businessman, and he realized that his art was a commodity, that he could sell,” explains Eric Shiner, director of the Andy Warhol Museum, located in Warhol’s hometown of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. “Because of the buzz of them being painted out, he knew that certain collectors would want to own them, and that’s why he went back to the studio to make them as paintings, which were then quickly sold off.”
The Queens Museum has borrowed the works on display from collections in both Europe and the United States. Not only can visitors see the mugshots, they can also view ephemera surrounding the incident, including newspaper clippings, letters and the New York Police Department booklet that inspired Warhol to create the mural. Although Warhol and the other artists were not asked to submit proposals for their pieces, they did give fair organizers the titles of their proposed works. “13 Most Wanted Men” apparently did not alarm them. At the time Johnson, who died in 2005, called the mural “a comment on the sociological factor in American life.” The mural was replete not just with the obvious controversy of putting the spotlight on degenerates; it also contained homosexual references. Warhol later referenced the piece in “13 Most Beautiful Boys,” one of his screen tests, which can also be seen in the show.
“Those depicted in portraits tend to be those that we herald in society, whether kings or queens, or the wealthy patrons that would commission artists to paint them,” says Mr Shiner. “So Warhol completely flips it to the other side of the coin by depicting the most-wanted men of New York City: felons, drug dealers, the downtrodden and that’s not a very typical thing. Now in addition to making that very radical decision to paint criminals, there’s also a really fantastic undertone of homoeroticism.”
This was a tumultuous period in the gay rights movement as the NYPD was cracking down on homosexual activity in the city. “Warhol was so sensitive to his times,” says Larissa Harris, a curator of the Queens Museum, “he funneled the news through his body like a sponge. He was not shy about making art out of news.” He would surely be pleased that the events surrounding the origins of “13 Most Wanted Men” are now news in themselves.
“13 Most Wanted Men: Andy Warhol and the 1964 World’s Fair” is on display at the Queens Museum until September 7th, 2014.
A.B. “Andy Warhol: Most Wanted.” The Economist. 9 May 2014.