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The backstory is the intrigue in Andy Warhol's 13 Most Wanted

A censored work from the 1964 World's Fair is resurrected

Before moving to Pittsburgh, I lived in the shadow of the Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller Empire State Plaza in Albany, N.Y.  Out my window I could see Corning Tower, the largest building in a complex of New York state government buildings. Built between 1959 and 1976, the plaza bespeaks Rockefeller's outsized ego and is by most accounts a Modernist fiasco. Nonetheless, its outlandish presence houses an impressive public-art collection.

As a collector, Rockefeller recognized New York as a center of artistic innovation in the 1960s and '70s. He assembled the Empire State Plaza Art Collection as a snapshot of talented artists of the time. His focus on abstract work was also political. Abstraction would not only complement the architecture, it would be provocative without relying on controversial subject matter.

Andy Warhol's Most Wanted Men No. 2 John Victor G
Image courtesy of The Andy Warhol Museum
Andy Warhol's "Most Wanted Men No. 2, John Victor G"

Controversy and the political animal that was Rockefeller are at the root of the story behind 13 Most Wanted Men: Andy Warhol and the 1964 World's Fair, at The Andy Warhol Museum. This little gem of a show is full of the conspiratorial tidbits that make the story of art so intriguing. The mostly archival material is good gossipy fun, a reminder that art is seldom far removed from its socio-cultural and political milieu.

Philip Johnson designed the New York State pavilion for the 1964 World's Fair, in Queens. Its observation towers were the fair's tallest (as Rockefeller requested), and the façade of the circular building called the Theaterama displayed newly commissioned works by 10 artists, including Warhol. Warhol's mural, "13 Most Wanted Men," was inspired by the painter Wynn Chamberlain, who suggested that he create a series of paintings based on headshots of the FBI's most wanted. However, once executed the mural was quickly painted over because of its scandalous content. In 1970, Johnson finally revealed that it was Rockefeller who had ordered the piece removed: The governor did not want to alienate voters, because seven of the 13 surnames were Italian.

In the gallery, a Warhol portrait of Rockefeller from 1967 hangs near several of the mug-shot paintings that have been reassembled for this exhibition. Their presence acts a backdrop to a complex story that intertwines key developments in Warhol's career with political, artistic and underground events taking place around the city.

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By Mars Johnson