Though Andy Warhol was an outsized public figure, he created just one piece of public art. Chances are, you’ve never heard of it.
Fifty years ago this month, for a little over 48 hours, that Warhol mural—called “13 Most Wanted Men”—hung on the side of the Philip Johnson-designed New York State Pavilion at the 1964 World’s Fair in Queens, New York. Its subject—agreed upon by the Fair committee a year in advance of its creation—was a series of enlarged mug shots of the New York City Police Department’s most wanted criminals of 1962, arranged in a checkerboard on the building’s concrete wall.
Yet when the faces of those alleged murderers and thieves, with their swollen eyes and shifty expressions, were no longer an idea but a 20-foot-tall mural on the side of a promotional building, New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller, readying the launch of a presidential campaign and in no need of bad publicity, swiftly demanded they be whitewashed—or, in this case, silver-washed with the metallic paint Warhol favored.
The firestorm surrounding the Pop provocateur’s little-known commission and its rapid censorship is the subject of “13 Most Wanted Men: Andy Warhol and the 1964 World’s Fair,” a must-see exhibition running through September 7 at the Queens Museum (and co-organized with the Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh). There’s no better place for this show—the museum is a few hundred yards from the now-rusted pavilion where the action took place. On view are nine Most Wanted paintings from the series Warhol made after the mural was destroyed, along with a choice selection of archival documents—from telegrams to police booklets to clippings from now-defunct New York newspapers—that illuminate the brief life and sudden death of an artwork few knew existed.
Warhol was one of 10 artists, including Roy Lichtenstein, James Rosenquist, and Robert Rauschenberg, commissioned by Pavilion architect Philip Johnson. Each one was given a 20-by-20-foot square on the side of the pavilion’s windowless, concrete Theaterama wing. Historical photographs on view in the exhibition show a crazy quilt of painting and sculpture. And there, for a brief moment, were Warhol’s thugs writ large. In concept, it was macabre and ironic, as well as unexpectedly intimate—these guys were locals, after all, and fair visitors might well have known one or two.
Within hours of the images going up, a city newspaper smelled a story. On April 15, 1964, a front-page item in the New York Journal American quoted Johnson as delighted by Warhol’s mural, followed by indignant quotes from unnamed fair employees and a Long Island woman who called for them to be taken down, alleging they would “spoil some of the fun of the fair.”
In a swift move to stanch the controversy, Governor Rockefeller demanded the piece be removed. By April 17, Warhol had written a letter to the Department of Public Works authorizing that the mural be painted over. That letter, along with a telegram written months earlier advising Warhol not to speak about his mural, highlight the gap between the historical documents, with their positive spin, and the reality of what really went down. We don’t know how all the parties really felt, but we certainly can imagine.
The current exhibition also lends creative context to the “Wanted Men,” which are of a piece with Warhol’s Death and Disaster series in which he examined our fascination with murder, accident, and mortality. On view in Queens, a small, dark “Little Electric Chair” reminds us of that body of work. Also on view are some of the artist’s famed boxes—Brillo and Heinz among them—that he made in ’64, plus a selection of screen tests, “13 Most Beautiful Boys” whose title riffs on the censored pictures and suggests a homoerotic interpretation of the project.
As an ironic finale, the curators have hung Warhol’s large-scale portrait of his censor, Nelson Rockefeller, made a few years after the Pavilion debacle. The piece suggests that Warhol was ultimately OK—and, quite possibly, pleased—with how the Pavilion affair went down. All publicity was good publicity, after all.
13 Most Wanted Men: Andy Warhol and the 1964 World’s Fair is on display at the Queens Museum from April 27 through September 7.