Censored: Andy Warhol Exhibit Spotlights Painted-Over Mural
The 1964 New York World's Fair was conceived as a two-year celebration of all that Space Age America had to offer, but in its efforts to show only the best and brightest, the fair ended up turning a spotlight to some of the darker aspects of Cold War subculture. It would be the site of one of the art world's most notorious acts of censorship, where Andy Warhol was tapped to produce the only public artwork he would ever make.
Masterminded by urban planner Robert Moses (who vowed to supervise the grounds from daily helicopter runs to ensure everything would be absolutely perfect), the 1964 New York World's Fair colonized the Flushing Meadows Corona Park in Queens with a Jetsons-like landscape of futuristic pavilions -- including the still-extant New York State Pavilion, dubbed the "Tent of Tomorrow." While nominally international, the fair focused on American achievement, with spectacular displays by IBM, Kodak, RCA, Ford, General Motors and UNICEF (for which Walt Disney would create the first-ever animatronic ensemble, "It's a Small World" -- now a staple in the Disney franchise.)
Of all the innovations on display, the New York State Pavilion was by far the fair's centerpiece. Designed by architect Philip Johnson, the complex broke from the stodgy expo-based model of other pavilions, opting instead for a modern, clean look, left deliberately open as a space for performance. Johnson equipped his three observation-deck "Astro Towers" with the then-cutting edge technology of glass elevators and outdoor escalators. ("Any one who's ever been to a Hilton won't be that impressed, but back then it was the future," NY Parks Department's Director of Historic Preservation, John Krawchuk admits.) These towers overlooked the massive, circus-themed "Tent of Tomorrow," which suspended a brightly colored fiberglass ceiling over a terrazzo floor in the shape of an enlarged Texaco state road map. Tucked to the side of the tent was the "Theaterama," whose rounded facade would soon be covered in murals from artists hand-picked by Johnson, including Robert Indiana, Ellsworth Kelly, Roy Lichtenstein, James Rosenquist and, of course, Andy Warhol.
For his commission, Warhol decided to depict something distinctly New York: mug-shot portraits of 13 of the NYPD's most wanted criminals, using found images from a 1962 booklet. On April 15, 1964, the silk-screened portraits were installed checkerboard-style directly onto the building's surface. The response was immediate. "Thugs at the fair?" Governor Nelson Rockefeller was quoted as saying, adding, "Nobody wants to see their distasteful pictures." In the end, few people would, because, two days later, at the behest of the fair organizers, the 20 x 20 foot square where the mural had been was entirely covered in silver paint.
In a front page story for the New York Journal American (a piece which some point to as what truly sparked the censorship), Warhol drolly noted that it could have been worse: "I had thought about doing a great big Heinz pickle." A year later, in a 1965 interview with New York World Telegram's Kit Kinkade, the artist went so far as to appropriate the physical act of censorship as a piece in itself: "I don't believe in anything, so the painting is more me now… Silver is so nothing, it makes everything disappear." When pressed for his opinion of the other (noncensored) work on display at the fair, the artist maintained that he hadn't bothered to see it: "We really don't like art."
These articles are just part of the fascinating archival display put together by the Queens Museum and the Andy Warhol Museum for "13 Most Wanted Men: Andy Warhol and the 1964 World's Fair." As the actual mural on the Theaterama facade has long since been destroyed, the exhibition digs into the artist's time capsules to root out relevant research materials, including the NYPD booklet that provided the original images and a set of later paintings Warhol recreated with the silk screens used for the mural. These items are displayed in the context of other work the artist was making concurrently, including samples from the "Death and Disaster" series, four of his Jackie Kennedy portraits (the phone JFK used to call Robert Moses is on display in another part of the museum), and some of the only existing documentation of the 25 portraits of a beaming Moses that Warhol cheekily made to replace the "13 Most Wanted" (These paintings were sadly lost to history shortly after being consigned to the Leo Castelli Gallery.)
The exhibition sets the tone of censorship with documents on New York's crackdown on so-called undesirable culture in the weeks before the fair, including the 1964 arrest of Jonas Mekas for screening Jack Smith's Flaming Creatures (1963) and Jean Genet's short Un chant d'amour (1950) at the East Village's New Bowery Theatre. "This exhibition explores a powerful and much overlooked moment in 1964 that intertwined art, history, politics, cultural mores, sexuality, architecture and freedom of expression," explains Tom Finkelpearl, director of the Queens Museum. "Andy Warhol's return to Queens will allow for new audiences to engage in these same discussions in a new era and new setting, while bringing these iconic works of art to the public."
"It's such a critical chapter in Warhol's history," explains Eric Shiner, director of the Andy Warhol Museum. "After all, this is actually his only public art work. You would think someone responsible for something like The Factory would have made hundreds of public works, but in fact he made just one, and it only lasted for 48 hours."
Luckily, visitors to the Queens Museum will have a bit more time to enjoy the work. "13 Most Wanted Men: Andy Warhol and the 1964 World's Fair" will be on view through Sept. 7, 2014, after which it will travel to the Andy Warhol Museum as part of the museum's 20th anniversary celebration in Pittsburgh.