Meeting Gangsters at the Fair

One of the most popular exhibits at the 1964 World’s Fair held in Flushing Meadows Queens was the New York State Pavilion. Commissioned by the state of New York, the pavilion was designed by the architect Philip Johnson and was the Fair’s largest and most controversial; indeed, it was in fact more famous for being controversial than for anything else. The pavilion was divided into three, independently functional sections: a “Cicarama,” a set of three observation towers measuring 250, 185 and 90 feet tall and a 350 foot by 250 foot elliptical plaza surrounded by sixteen columns measuring 100 feet tall supporting a multi-colored canopy that covered the plaza. (The pavilion, while not fully operational, is the only remaining structure of the ’64 Fair in Flushing Meadows; it stood directly across from the old  Shea Stadium.)

Johnson commissioned ten relatively unknown artists to install sets of paintings and murals along the “Cicarama” or outer walls of the pavilion. The artists were Peter Agostini, John Chamberlain, Robert Indiana, Ellsworth Kelly, Roy Lichenstein, Alexander Lieberman, Robert Malloy, Robert Rauschenberg, James Rosenquist and, last but certainly not least, Andy Warhol.

Fair President Robert Moses, for three decades the city’s Grand Vizier of urban planning, saw the Fair as a commercial rather than aesthetic environment; a venue for popular entertainment in step with a burgeoning age of mass consumption through automation, automation through computerization and intellectual diminishment through television. The Fair marked the first major presentation of Pop Art, itself the fledgling antithesis and ultimate avatar of commercialism, and where the dividing line between art for the masses (advocated by Moses) and the avant-garde (advocated by Johnston) converged.

Hilarious Robert Moses mosaic on the sidewalk at Flushing Meadows

The contradictions peculiar to Pop Art, as well to that of the Fair itself, may have inspired the indomitably perverse Andy Warhol to create a work that was certainly original and characteristically bizarre. Possessing the most lucrative contract he ever had, and tacitly obligated to fulfill Moses’ wishes for art that advanced the American way of life on the pavilion’s Cicarama, Warhol “chose to show the explosive reality of everyday life in American society” with his contribution: “Thirteen Most Wanted Men.”  Pop Art

Having obtained several FBI mug shots, Warhol chose 22 of these and arranged them in a series of screen prints consisting of 25 panels (three were left blank) studded with photos of 13 “most wanted” criminals on a 36 square meter block. The shots which formed the mural were all of Mafiosi thugs and, while of some morbid interest (for The Smoking Gun fans…like me), hardly an expression of the American way of life.

Needless to say, Thirteen Most Wanted Men failed to please Moses’ artistic sensibilities; as it would’ve surely failed to please the artistic sensibilities of most visitors to the Fair. Nelson Rockefeller, Governor of New York at the time, told Warhol to remove his creation from the pavilion, expressing fears that it would offend Italian-Americans. However, Warhol blamed Moses for its removal and offered to replace his Wanted Men with a less-than-flattering print of Moses himself (as posted here, he had indeed already finished one).

In any event, the artist summarily painted over the mural with a layer of silver paint; there it remained, a silver square on the Cicarama, for about four weeks until the mural was moved to a warehouse and later destroyed. In Warhol’s typical brand of mundane cynicism he said, “In one way I was glad that the mural was gone; now I wouldn’t have to feel responsible if one of the criminals got turned in to the FBI because someone had recognized him from the picture.”

Ultimately, Thirteen Most Wanted Men became even more famous for hardly ever being seen and, over the decades, assumed an esoteric life of its own as (literally) a conversation piece. While the few in a position to see the work when it was exhibited opposed, ignored or ultimately rejected it, it assumed an esoteric life of its own. While the nine other artists’ contributions to the pavilion are all but forgotten, Warhol’s destroyed piece of criminal pop continues to fascinate many…not for its artistry but for its mystery. Then again, only an artist such as Warhol could mysteriously turn failure into success and infamy into fame.

(originally posted: 03/24/09)

Sources: Pop Art, Bowery Boys (to whom I extend my gratitude for the photos), Scholarly Commons