It would be a crime today. But in 1964, Andy Warhol’s mural “13 Most Wanted Men,” commissioned for the facade of the New York State Pavilion at the World’s Fair in Queens, N.Y., was painted over just hours before the fair opened.
Featuring a checkerboard compilation of mug shots, “13 Most Wanted Men” was installed by April 15, 1964, and painted over at fair officials’ direction with silver paint a few days later. When the fair opened to the public, all that was visible was a large silver square.
That fateful event is relived in “13 Most Wanted Men: Andy Warhol and the 1964 World’s Fair,” a most unusual exhibit at the Andy Warhol Museum. Unusual because Warhol’s mural is the single, central subject, with everything that surrounded it — documentation, archival materials, even receipts — addressing its creation and destruction and placing it in its artistic and social context of the times.
“It’s almost a detective story, sort of unpacking the circumstances that surround the mural,” Warhol curator Nicholas Chambers says.
Several photographs by Billy Name, the man responsible for painting every surface of Warhol’s famous studio known as “The Factory” silver, hang nearby.
“This initial sequence of photographs sets the scene as to what was happening at Warhol’s studio at the time,” Chambers says. And, indeed, if you look closely, you’ll see everything from the large acetates used to create the mural to a selection of Warhol’s “Box Sculptures” (including Brillo), which premiered April 21, the day before the fair.
Chambers says there were a number of different voices that led to the censorship of the mural.
“Robert Moses is certainly one, being part of the organization of the fair,” he says. “Also Gov. Nelson Rockefeller himself weighed in on it, because he was up for election, and there was an issue as to whether the mural would somehow create a problem in a sense for Italian-Americans, because a lot of the photos were of Italian-American origin.”
It was Rockefeller who asked architect Philip Johnson to design the New York State Pavilion for the fair. Johnson commissioned 10 contemporary American artists to make works to hang on the outside of his circular building, among them notables such as Ellsworth Kelly, Roy Lichtenstein and Robert Rauschenberg.
Among a plethora of related ephemera on display, such as letters and invoices for supplies, is the source of the imagery for the mural. “This is the document from which the paintings were generated,” Chambers says, pointing to the New York Police Department’s 13 most-wanted men booklet.
Chambers says the mural idea, with its enlarged mug shots of criminals, was not far from works Warhol created at the time, such as his Disaster Series, which reprinted auto accidents and other horrific events as seen in the daily newspapers, as well as portraits, which Warhol had begun producing.
“In a sense, it’s both of those things: It’s a disaster, but it’s also a portrait at the same time,” Chambers says of the mural.
Several large mug-shot portraits that Warhol made after the mural also hang in the show.
“After the mural was painted over, Warhol used the screens to produce these paintings,” Chambers says. “Some are singles, and, with some, there are two versions.”
These works weren’t exhibited until 1967, when they went on display in Paris at the Sonnabend Gallery.
Curiously, among the documentation on display there is a letter dated March 4, 1964, from Philip Johnson that reads: “Please don’t talk with reporters or give out any public statements on your work for the New York State exhibit. This will be handled by the publicity department of the New York State commission.”
And then, April 17 of that same year, Warhol writes to the New York State Department of Public Works: “Gentlemen, this serves to confirm that you are hereby authorized to paint over my mural in the New York State Pavilion in a color suitable to the architect.”
There is also a newspaper clipping of an interview from the summer of 1965, about a year after the mural fiasco, in which a journalist asked Warhol what he thought of the painting over of his mural, which was still up. “This painting is more me, now. Because silver is so nothing, it makes everything disappear,” he was quoted as saying.
Two of Warhol’s films complete the exhibition — “Empire” and a screen-test compilation, “Thirteen Most Beautiful Boys.”
Because several buildings in Manhattan remained lit throughout the run of the World’s Fair, Chambers says of “Empire,” which features the Empire State Building, “The film, in a sense, could only be made because it was lit for the fair.”
As for “Thirteen Most Beautiful Boys,” which was done the same year as the mural, Chambers says there is an undeniable connection. Not just in the title, but, “There’s a homoerotic subtext, this notion of being the most wanted.”
Kurt Shaw is the art critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.