A Censored Warhol is Back, 50 Years Later

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Andy Warhol, Thirteen Most Wanted Men, silkscreen on canvas, 20 x 20 ft. Installed on the exterior of the New York State Pavilion.

The 1964 World's Fair was supposed to be an event celebrating peace, and humankind achievement.

On April 15th, 1964, Pop artist Andy Warhol presented his contribution to it: his piece Thirteen Most Wanted Men was installed on the facade of the New York State Pavilion. The mural featured mug shots of the 13 most wanted criminals by the New York Police Department.

Warhol had been commissioned along with nine other artists by the architect of the building, Philip Johnson, to create a piece for the pavilion.

But when Warhol’s piece was unveiled, it caused a furor. Then Governor Nelson Rockefeller demanded it be covered. Warhol agreed, and silver painting was applied over the mural. That was Warhol’s only public art piece and it was on view for just 48 hours.

Andy Warhol, Most Wanted Men No. 2, John Victor G., 1964. (The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York)

Warhol then used the screens to produce 13 canvases that ended up being sold to collectors in New York and Europe. Nine of them are part of a new exhibit at the Queens Museum.

Larrisa Harris, curator of the show, explained the pieces are part of Warhol’s Death and Disaster Series, and were also inspired by his first silent film, Thirteen Most Beautiful Boys, which is also presented in the exhibit. Like the movie, she said, the mug shots address the issue of outside power impinging in a human being.

Harris said the mural was also very homoerotic. It presented some of the men on the mug shots looking at each other. “It’s very cruisey,” she said. “And the punning on the title, ‘the most wanted men.’ It opens up all kinds of view onto his work and onto him.”

Andy Warhol, Most Wanted Men No. 11, John Joseph H., Jr., 1964. (The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York)

The exhibit includes paintings, pictures and historical materials like newspaper articles and the NYPD booklet that inspired the piece.

Jessica Dawson, an art critic who writes for The Daily Beast and Art in America, explained the show is part historical and part art. “You are not only looking at the art work and viewing them as discreet objects,” she said. “The larger context, the larger story, is what the show really fleshes out and what makes it very exciting to go see.”

Included in the exhibit are the letter Warhol wrote authorizing the mural to be destroyed, and newspaper clippings of interviews, in some of which he said he didn’t like how the piece came out.

Billy Name, Untitled 1964. Courtesy the artist. © 2014 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

But Chelsea Weathers, an art historian at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas, Austin, who is an expert on Warhol, explained that is probably not true. “He embraced accident in his work, and I’ve never come across any sort of account from his part of him rejecting a canvas.” she said. “I suspect that he having a problem with the way they looked is very slim.”

The exhibit is the last under Tom Finkelpearl as executive director of the Queens Museum, where he has been for 12 years.

Finkelpearl said when mayor Bill de Blasio announced his appointment as the new Commissioner of the Department of Cultural Affairs earlier this month, a lot of the stories were stressing how the museum has done a good job with community engagement, so he is pleased to end his tenure with a show by a major pop artist. “We learned a lot from community centers, but we are really not a community center. Community centers don’t do Warhol shows,” he said.

Especially not one called Thirteen Most Wanted Men.