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Queer Transpositions: Censorship and Desire in Andy Warhol’s 13 Most Wanted Men

13 Most Wanted Men, 1964

I recently visited The Andy Warhol Museum to take a look at Warhol’s 13 Most Wanted Men (1964) before it was returned to its home in the Queens Museum. I couldn’t miss catching a glimpse of the World’s Fair mural that was so famously painted over with silver paint a few days after its reveal. The exhibit included the individual mug shot prints alongside Warhol’s work that surrounded its production, World’s Fair materials, and newspaper reports of the controversy. In one exhibited interview, in true Warholian fashion, the artist quipped that he liked the painted censorship because “silver is nothing”—one could use it to cover furniture or, in the case of 13 Most Wanted Men, people that one no longer wants to see.

Shoe ("Tony"), ca. 1957

Before I made my way to the Most Wanted Men exhibit, however, I discovered something else. The museum was recently reorganized as a timeline, and thus more comprehensive view, of Warhol’s work. The top floor begins with his early art, including his commercial fashion drawings and blotted line illustrations. This inclusion foregrounds his early kitschy aesthetic that is typically effaced in the portrait of Warhol the Pop Artist. And importantly (for my purposes anyway), the museum’s choice to exhibit this work foregrounds Warhol’s identity as a gay artist. As I explored the top floor, I was delighted to see work like High Heel Shoe and Shoe (“Tony”), but I let out a little gasp of excitement when I turned around and saw the likes of Reclining Male Torso.

Reclining Male Torso, 1950s

I’ve long been fascinated by Warhol’s work because of the way his Pop Art pieces invades popular culture and his lesser known films filter into queer film history. I knew very little about his early drawing and painting, though, until encountering Richard Meyer’s Outlaw Representation, which includes a pivotal chapter that links Warhol’s virtually unknown watercolors and line drawings to his work as an established Pop artist. His chapter titled “Most Wanted Men” divides Warhol’s work into two eras—early commercial work and Pop Art—but does not draw a neat queer/not-queer dividing line between the two phases. Meyer begins his work at the seeming discontinuity of this transition in order to reveal an underlying continuity, particularly Warhol’s continued commitment to homosexual culture. “Most Wanted Men” with the rumor that the Tanager Gallery hostilely rejected Warhol’s “boys kissing boys” series in the late 1950s. The Tanager Gallery’s rejection acts as a stand-in for larger museum and gallery culture’s rejection of art that so blatantly portrays homosexual content, and is so clearly produced by a homosexual artist. Yet, in favor of presenting Warhol’s rejection from the Tanager Gallery as a victim narrative, Meyer uses this anecdote to expose the discourses of censorship that produce Warhol’s figure of the criminal.

Otto Fenn, fashion photgraph, Unidentified Model with Butterfly Screen Projections (butterfly artwork by Andy Warhol), ca.1952

The aesthetics of Warhol’s early work reveal his participation in a homosexual world or social milieu. His airy line drawings, frothy watercolor paintings, and eccentric shoe illustrations reveal the tenderness and affection of Camp sensibility—a sensibility that very much appeals to my own. As I pored over the photographs of Portrait of Kenneth Jay Lane with Butterflies and Otto Fenn fashion photos included in Meyer’s book, admiring their sheer aesthetic beauty, I couldn’t help but wonder why these images were banished to the Archives of the Andy Warhol Museum and not exhibited. But their place in the unseen archive means something. For while these pieces would eventually make their way unto the top floor of the Museum, their initial exclusion reflects Warhol’s own construction of his artistic persona.

Warhol’s early work afforded his access to Manhattan’s homosexual world, but it also revealed, through incidents like the “boys kissing boys” controversy, the impossibility of entering the realm of high art with such an aesthetic. That act of censorship was productive in that it produced a shift in Warhol’s work. Instead of simply excluding Warhol’s work from that gallery space, that rejection informed Warhol’s art-making process, as he worked within the art world’s constraints and turned to alternative means of expressing homosexual content. In other words, Warhol’s early work solidified his personal understanding of himself as a homosexual artist, but his work underwent a necessary transformation before it was appropriate for a venue like the World’s Fair. The denotation of homosexuality in his early work had to become connotation in his Pop Art.

13 Most Wanted Men, painted over

Warhol’s early work’s denotation of homosexuality reflects the imperative to transform “your desire, your every desire, into discourse,” but his Pop Art era work tells a decidedly different story.[1] Work like 13 Most Wanted Men refuses to speak Warhol’s truth in the way that his commercial art does; Warhol, instead, expresses his desire through the alternative possibilities produced by censorship and made possible by the World’s Fair exhibition. While it may appear that his transition to Pop Art completely silenced the homosexual overtones of his previous work, works like 13 Most Wanted demonstrate that those overtones, in reality, became something else—something criminal. The mural’s depiction of criminality suppresses homosexual visibility without erasing it entirely; criminality emerges as a residual queerness.

13 Most Wanted Men, detail

While Warhol’s commercial art and male nude line drawings aesthetically recreate the homosexual world he participated in, the Most Wanted Men mural, and his Pop Art more broadly, produces its own world—a world that gives criminals access to each other. The mural arranges the thirteen criminals into the same visual space so that they now exchange glances and gazes with one another. The title reveals its intermixing of codes of criminality and homosexuality: “It is not only that these men are wanted by the police but that the very act of ‘wanting men’ may constitute a form of criminality if the wanter is also male, if, say, the wanter is Warhol. The title of the mural metaphorically ‘double-codes’ its depicted men as objects of both surveillance and illicit desire.”[2] Warhol arranges the criminals’ mug shots in such a way that they are looking at each other, sometimes returning one another’s gaze, sometimes allowing the criminals to exist in a voyeuristic relationship. The images come together to form a space in which “these attractions, these evasions, these circular incitements have traced around bodies and sexes, not boundaries not to be crossed, but perpetual spirals of power and pleasure.[3] Warhol’s artistic hand implicates him in these spirals, not in the literal way the inscription of his hand exists in his early drawings, but in a more abstract sense as the orchestrator of these images. 13 Most Wanted Men generates a counter-world of visual power in which one sort of criminal (a most wanted man) is watched by both like ones and another sort of social criminal: the homosexual artist.

Footnotes

  1. Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, Vol. 1: An Introduction (New York: Vintage Books, 1978), 121. []
  2. Meyer, Outlaw Representation, 137. []
  3. Foucault, The History of Sexuality, 45. []

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