By Holland Cotter, April 24, 2014
Warhol Shows Open, on World’s Fair and on Jackie Kennedy
A half-century ago this week, the 1964 World’s Fair opened in Flushing Meadows, Queens. With Belgian waffles, Michelangelo’s “Pietà” and a Tent of Tomorrow, the event was a last postwar blast of guilt-free consumption, Sunday school piety and faith in the future as a good place to be. It was also the scene of a smashup in progress, as the America of the 1950s ran into the 1960s.
The momentum had jolted into high gear a year earlier. With the Kennedy assassination, an era of lost illusions had begun. So had a time of anger. As the fair opened, the Civil Rights Act was stalled in Congress. The country’s involvement in Vietnam was escalating. The Beatles had landed and set off a youthquake. The city itself, anxious to get clean for tourism, was beefing up on vice squads.
To a degree hard to imagine now, contemporary art had a reflective active role in this feverish picture. No artist took the cultural pulse more precisely than Andy Warhol. And we see his diagnostic instincts already fully developed in two remarkable New York exhibitions: “13 Most Wanted Men: Andy Warhol and the 1964 World’s Fair,” at the Queens Museum, and “Warhol: Jackie” at Blain/Di Donna, a gallery on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.
By 1964, Warhol was a different artist from the one he’d been just a few years before. Gone were the filigreed drawings of boots and shoes that had made him a commercial design star. He left advertising and office life behind and set up shop in a ratty loft on East 47th Street that he called the Factory. There he made multiedition silk-screened paintings of subjects that he considered typical American themes: cheap food, tabloid violence and celebrity worship.
With the help of close friends and lots of speed, he turned out vast series of individual images, including soup cans and Coke bottles, car wrecks and electric chairs. He also did portraits of Marilyn Monroe, by then two years dead, and of the recently widowed Jacqueline Kennedy. In each case, the original likeness was lifted from news media sources, then reproduced exactly and repeatedly, like faces of saints in the Byzantine Catholic churches of his Pittsburgh youth.
During the same months he was doing all this, he was also working on a public commission: a new work to be displayed, along with that of nine other young Americans, on the facade of the New York State Pavilion at the World’s Fair. The pavilion’s architect, Philip Johnson, selected the artists (Robert Indiana, Ellsworth Kelly and Robert Rauschenberg were among them), assigned them a uniform size and left the choices of form and subject up to them.
Stumped for ideas, Warhol arrived at the theme for his fair project by chance. On a visit to a friend’s home, he came across a 1962 New York City Police Department brochure of mug shots titled “The 13 Most Wanted Men.” That was that. He reproduced, large, the head shots of the mostly young Italian-American and Irish-American crime suspects on Masonite panels and had the panels installed high on the pavilion’s exterior.
Managerial alarms went off. Word came down that the piece was unacceptable, had to go. Workmen came and blotted out its images with aluminum-colored house paint. Who made the censorship decision? It wasn’t Johnson. Accusatory eyes turned to Robert Moses, the fair’s demagogic president, who had a big stake in uplift and would have hated Warhol’s jailbirds. But with worries that the fair would be a flop (financially, it was) and the prospect of African-American groups protesting his hiring practices, he probably didn’t notice.
The real culprit seems to have been the New York governor, Nelson A. Rockefeller, who was running in the 1964 presidential election and feared that the ethnic content of the Warhol commission would cost him votes. Yet the few surviving photographs of “13 Most Wanted Men” in situ tell a simpler and even realer story: The piece was plain outrageous. Not only did it literally elevate criminality and violence for all to see (one of the mug-shot subjects looks badly beaten up); it also generated, for those in the know, homoerotic “rough trade” vibes that gave the label “wanted men” an extra spin.
Those rare photographs of the piece during its brief intact existence are in the Queens Museum show. (The pavilion itself, in poor condition, still stands.) So are, strikingly, nine of “13 Most Wanted Men” paintings that Warhol made on canvas, for gallery display, after the commissions were done. And all of these images are given deep context through a wealth of supporting material.
A Stygian black “Little Electric Chair” painting from 1964-65, on loan from the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, underscores the punitive, death-obsessed direction of so much of Warhol’s work at the time. And a homoerotic reading of the public commission is reinforced by the presence in the show of “13 Most Beautiful Boys,” a series of filmed head shots of various young men, gay and straight, who visited Warhol’s studio, beginning in 1964.
Most interesting of all, though, is the purely documentary material. The curators — Larissa Harris of the Queens Museum, Nicholas Chambers of the Andy Warhol Museum, along with Anastasia Rygle and Timothy Mennel — have performed miracles of archive diving. And they’ve surfaced with newspaper clips, letters, telegrams, contracts and other ephemera that flesh out the fate of the Warhol commission, which the news media barely reported and to which the public remained largely oblivious.
These materials also flesh out a sense of America at that time: a country startled by its own suddenly detonative tensions, tensions that made the World’s Fair, that “Olympics of progress,” anachronistic in its own day, and that give the Queens show, like many dedicated to Warhol, a keyed-up, caustic, slightly nasty edge.
A break in this mood comes in a set of four small 1964 portrait paintings, in cerulean blue and black, of Jacqueline Kennedy. Based on cropped news photographs, they catch her smiling on arrival in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963, and monumentally veiled at her husband’s funeral days later. The themes of violence and mortality that link so much of Warhol’s art from this period are here, but the pictures seem to belong to a different, graver world. Its essence is distilled in the other show, “Warhol: Jackie,” at Blain/Di Donna.
Organized in collaboration with Bibi Khan, a former curator of the Andy Warhol Foundation, this show is devoted to silk-screen paintings, with a few prints, of the first lady, based on eight news photos, including the one of her standing, stunned, as a witness at Lyndon B. Johnson’s emergency swearing-in. Despite the limited range of images, the paintings, alone or grouped, are astonishingly varied, with subtle differences in tonal values and weights of pigment, and forms coming in and out of focus, as if seen through curtains of static.
Much that seems cold and cynical in Warhol is here: in the mass production, in the voyeurism, in the opportunistic appeal to pop-cultural emotion. The repeated images — he made more than 300 “Jackie” paintings — are like a 1960s equivalent of today’s 24-hour television and Internet news cycle, repeating the same tragic data in an endless loop to a tinkly soundtrack.
But the “Jackie” pictures also evoke a specific type of image, one tied to desire, devotion and a salvational hope: the religious icon. In this light, the Blain/Di Donna show might be seen as a shrine to a black-and-blue Madonna, the “Most Wanted Men” as a roll call of martyr-saints. The saving grace of Warhol’s best art is that a sense of critical morality is always, if almost by accident, operative. And in 1964, when two damaged decades were slamming together, and he felt caught in the wreck, he called on it.