Most Wanted: Uncovering Warhol
By Jason Edward Kaufman
Andy Warhol’s scandalous involvement in the 1964 World’s Fair was more about politics than art. New York governor Nelson Rockefeller hired architect Phillip Johnson to design the state pavilion, and Johnson in turn asked Pop artists to create works to adorn the facade. Warhol contributed a set of black-and-white mug shots of the Most Wanted criminals on NYPD’s list for 1962. The project was approved, but once installed it dawned on officials that it might not be the best advertisement for the glories of the Empire State. Someone – it is not clear if it was Rockefeller or Robert Moses, the city planner and president of the fair – ordered the hoodlums effaced, and just before the opening the 20 x 20-foot grid of gangsters was covered in silver paint.
An exhibition at the Queens Museum, which occupies the extant New York City pavilion, marks the 50th anniversary of the saga, bringing together 9 of the 13 silkscreen replicas that Warhol produced the summer after the debacle, along with correspondence, news clippings, period photos – much from the Andy Warhol Museum archives – as well as plans and ephemera of the fair and contemporary works from Warhol’s factory, including his Brillo, Campbell’s, Heinz and Del Monte boxes and portraits of Jackie Kennedy. The result is a lesson in the collision of artistic freedom and political correctness, one that typically ended in censorship.
What was Warhol thinking? His art had recently taken a dark turn. The 1962-1963 “Death and Disaster” series enlarged news photos of automobile accidents, civil rights riots and an electric chair. His front and profile portraits of crooks fit right in with his dystopian exposé of modern America. But they were less a celebration of society than a provocation — the equivalent of Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo images for display in the U.S. pavilion at Expo 2010 in Shanghai. It didn’t stand a chance of getting past the authorities.
The nine other commissioned pieces for the cylindrical building’s exterior wall were more benign – a Roy Lichtenstein comic-book redhead, a John Chamberlain relief of crushed car parts, a collage of advertising images by James Rosenquist, and works by Robert Rauschenberg, Ellsworth Kelly and Robert Indiana, among others. By contrast, Warhol’s was a countercultural slap to the face of the establishment.
Johnson whitewashed the censorship by reporting that Warhol himself didn’t like the mural, and he sent a telegram to the artist asking him not to talk about the controversy. But years later the architect said that the prime mover had been Rockefeller, mindful of his bid for the Republican nomination for President, and concerned that the Italian names of 7 of the 13 criminals would lose the Italian vote.
Rockefeller was a noted arts patron, but one with a history of censorship. In 1934 he destroyed Mexican muralist Diego Rivera’s fresco in the underground concourse of Rockefeller Center because it depicted his father John D. Rockefeller alongside Communists Trotsky and Lenin. In 1970, as a trustee of MoMA and again considering a run for President, he engineered the removal of a work by Hans Haacke from a show at the museum. Haacke’s MoMA Poll 1970 presented two transparent ballot boxes with instructions for visitors to vote their response to the question, “Would the fact that Governor Rockefeller has not denounced President Nixon’s Indochina policy be a reason for you not to vote for him in November?”
Reacting to suppression of his World’s Fair work, Warhol offered to replace the criminals with identical smiling portraits of fair president Moses. He made the 25 panels but the proposal was rejected and the pictures have since been lost. Historians note that homophobia may have been an undercurrent in the debacle, pointing out that the “most wanted” title alluded to homoerotic desire for the thugs. Earlier that year Warhol had begun a series of film portraits of young men that he titled “13 Most Beautiful Boys,” being screened in the Queens exhibition.
With its grainy monochrome portraits, documentary photographs, and vitrines of papers the show is visually bland. But as an historical exercise it scintillates with tension between the underground art world and New York’s power players during a seminal moment in the career of an artist who would later be acknowledged as the period’s cultural cynosure.
“13 Most Wanted Men: Andy Warhol and the 1964 World’s Fair” continues at the Queens Museum until September 7, 2014.
Jason Edward Kaufman //
This article appeared in Artphaire (Online), May 29, 2014.