The Story Behind Andy Warhol's 13 Most Wanted

Dec 16, 2014

Fifty years ago, the 1964 World’s Fair opened in Queens, New York. The organizers commissioned work from Andy Warhol, to be displayed on the facade of the New York State Pavilion, one of the fair’s main venues. 

According to Jessica Beck, assistant curator at The Warhol Museum, the NY World's Fair was all about “Peace through understanding, and man’s place in this changing and shrinking world.” 

She says it was meant to be a family-friendly attraction. 

But at that time, Andy Warhol was still experimenting with pop art, and growing in notoriety. For his commissioned work, Warhol created “Thirteen Most Wanted Men,” a mural composed of 22 head-and-shoulder mug shots taken from a booklet created by the New York City Police Department with images of the most wanted criminals of 1962. The painting, unsurprisingly, caused a scandal. 

Beck says government officials were not keen on showcasing artwork that portrayed New York in a negative light, especially Governor Nelson Rockefeller, a presidential candidate at the time. He demanded the artwork be removed. So the images were painted over with monochrome silver a couple of days before the World’s Fair opened.

Beck plays up the scandal in the way 13 Most Wanted was curated.

“The fun thing about the exhibition is that it’s part detective story. When all of this was happening it was very secretive. No one actually saw the mural. It was 48 hours before the fair had opened, that it was requested-- demanded, to be painted over,” Beck explains.

“On the surface, in the press, one day it’s the mural, the next day it’s silver.”

Later that summer, Warhol re-created the mural on a smaller scale in 20 separate paintings. Many of the paintings were recently brought together for the first time since their creation, and are now part of a major exhibition currently on view at the Andy Warhol Museum.