Warhol’s Most Wanted
Most Wanted Men No. 11, John Joseph H., Jr — offered in New York on 17 May — is the artist’s haunting reminder of the dark underside of America during a time when, outwardly at least, the country was projecting a confident, forward-looking culture
Like any good detective story, the origins of Andy Warhol’s Most Wanted series involve a series of dramatic twists and turns. At the beginning of 1963, the architect Philip Johnson approached Andy Warhol, along with Ellsworth Kelly, Roy Lichtenstein, Robert Indiana, Peter Agostini, John Chamberlain, James Rosenquist, Robert Mallary, and Alexander Lieberman, to create a mural-sized work to adorn the outside of the Panoramic Cinema Theater, a centrepiece of the New York State Pavilion at the World’s Fair, which was to be held the following year.
Warhol decided to reproduce, on a monumental scale, 13 mugshots of various criminals taken from a booklet entitled The Thirteen Most Wanted Men produced by the New York Police Department. Some of the mugshots were double-aspect (front-on and in profile), others just a single shot of the men (and they were all men), that the NYPD considered to be its most dangerous criminals.
These sparse compositions, consisting of tightly cropped portraits, reveal little information about the subject; the exact details of their lives, the circumstances of their arrest, and even the gruesome details of their crimes are left to the imagination.
Warhol’s exact reasons for choosing this subject matter are unclear. According to John Giorno, a member of the artist’s inner circle, the idea came from the painter Wynn Chamberlain, whose lover at the time was an NYPD officer who, according to Giorno, ‘obtained’ a large envelope filled with various crime photos, mug shots and archival photographs which he passed on to Warhol.
Of the mugshots that Warhol selected, the one of John Joseph Henehan Jr. is perhaps the most enigmatic. Other subjects, such as John Victor Guisto and Andrew Ferraiola, look suitably villainous, but with his good looks and chiselled features, Henehan wouldn’t have looked out of place in one of the era’s teen heart-throb magazines.
This outward appearance, however, hides a darker, violent character, evidenced by the description of Henehan’s crime in the original police booklet. On 28 February, 1959, Henehan Jr. and three accomplices walked into a liquor store in Queens, New York, and robbed the cashier at gunpoint. They took $350 from the register, $70 from the store owner and $450, a watch and a ring from an unlocked safe.
Henehan was a familiar face to his local police precinct as three years previously, aged 19, he had been arrested in possession of a gun and given parole. Two years later he was arrested again, this time for the possession of a small amount of heroin and drug paraphernalia, but was later acquitted. Indicted for the Queens robbery of the liquor store by a grand jury, he absconded before the trial and was wanted by the F.B.I. on a charge of unlawful flight from custody. As such, the Thirteen Most Wanted Men series was controversial from the start.
Just a few days before the World’s Fair’s official opening in April 1964, Warhol’s large-scale mural was dramatically painted over, although the exact reasons why have proved difficult to pin down. Initially it was thought that Warhol himself had instigated this process, saying that he wasn’t happy with the final result. Press reports at the time stated that, ‘Mr. Warhol claims that the work was not properly installed and felt that it did not do justice to what he had in mind. Mr. Johnson [Philip Johnson, the architect] said… that he was in agreement with the artist and ordered the mural removed from the building.’
It later emerged that New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller had commented on the large number of subjects who could be said to be of Italian-American heritage, and was worried that this would upset an important and influential political lobby.
Despite its dark subject matter, Most Wanted Men No. 11, John Joseph H., Jr. also falls squarely within Andy Warhol’s Pop vernacular
Perhaps the fair’s organisers felt that a work of art depicting armed robbers and murderers (including a child murderer) was not in keeping with the fair’s theme: ‘Man’s Achievements on a Shrinking Globe in an Expanding Universe’. If the 1964 World’s Fair was designed to look to the future, Warhol’s contribution seemed to hark back to America’s history of lawlessness and violence.
Later in 1964, Warhol made a series of nearly two dozen larger than life-size canvases featuring 13 of these ‘most wanted’ men, many of which were exhibited at the Sonnabend Gallery in Paris in 1967. Part of this important series, Most Wanted Men No. 11, John Joseph H., Jr. is one of only six subjects that Warhol made in two versions, with the other housed in the permanent collection of the Museum für Moderne Kunst, Frankfurt am Main.
Set against a light ground, the dark image of of John Joseph Henehan Jr. that Warhol screened onto the canvas has a looming presence. This dichotomy between the clarity of the image and the obscurity of the subject is one of the factors that makes this series one of the artist’s most complex and engaging observations of American culture.
In the chapter on the Most Wanted series in his book, Outlaw Representation: Censorship and Homosexuality in Twentieth-Century Art, Richard Meyer identifies a strong homoerotic thread that runs throughout these paintings. ‘Thirteen Most Wanted Men constructs a countermodel of visual power in which one sort of social outlaw (the criminal) is watched — and wanted — by another (the homosexual artist),’ writes Meyer. Interestingly, just a few months after completing the present work, Warhol produced a film called Thirteen Most Beautiful Boys continuing this theme, and making it even more explicit.
Most Wanted Men No. 11, John Joseph H., Jr. resides within the body of Warhol’s work that deals with death, disaster and tragedy. Chronologically, his Most Wanted Men paintings come immediately before one of Warhol’s most haunting series — his portraits of Jackie Kennedy, the wife of the assassinated President John F. Kennedy.
By elevating the criminal visage to a form of high art Warhol is aligning these nefarious figures with his own earlier celebrity portrayals
Using press photographs taken immediately after the fateful events in Dallas, Warhol reflected the grief, shock and stoicism experienced by the First Lady and the entire nation. Like millions of Americans, Warhol had watched the drama unfold on television, but his interest was not in capturing or replicating the emotional intensity, but in responding to the near-hysterical media coverage of the event.
Despite its dark subject matter, Most Wanted Men No. 11, John Joseph H., Jr. also falls squarely within Andy Warhol’s Pop vernacular. Just as he did with his paintings of Liz Taylor, Campbell’s Soup cans and Coca-Cola bottles, Warhol seeks to embrace the entire range of Americana.
As Meyer points out, Warhol’s work from this period becomes ‘a stark, disabused, pessimistic vision of American life, produced from the knowing rearrangement of pulp materials by an artist who did not opt for easier paths of irony or condescension.’ By elevating the criminal visage to a form of high art Warhol is aligning these nefarious figures with his own earlier celebrity portrayals.
More than 30 years on, the popularity of such American TV staples as America’s Most Wanted, which began in 1996 and ran for 25 seasons on the Fox TV network, and the current trend for social media hashtags such as ‘#hotfelon’ (personified by Jeremy Meeks, who was sent to prison for arms possession before landing a full-time modelling job after his mugshot was put on Facebook by his local police department), demonstrate that the phenomenon which Warhol had identified is still alive and well.
Most Wanted Men No. 11, John Joseph H., Jr. was acquired first by Mickey Ruskin, the founder and owner of the legendary New York nightclub and restaurant Max’s Kansas City. Soon after it opened in December 1965, Max’s became the regular hangout of painters and sculptors including Robert Rauschenberg, John Chamberlain, Larry Rivers, Brice Marden, Roy Lichtenstein, Richard Serra, Donald Judd and Dan Flavin. The Velvet Underground played there regularly, and the club witnessed regular appearances by Marc Bolan, David Bowie, Iggy Pop, Lou Reed and Alice Cooper.
Perhaps the most famous patron of Max’s Kansas City, though, was Warhol himself, who — together with his entourage — would often frequent the famous backroom, taking over the entire space and turning it into the epicentre of New York nightlife at the time.
In addition to this distinguished provenance the painting was in the Saatchi collection, and has been included in a number of important exhibitions. These include the seminal retrospective of Warhol’s work organised by New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 1989, which later travelled to the Hayward Gallery in London and the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris.