Queens is celebrating the 50th anniversary of the 1964 World's Fair, so architect Philip Johnson's Tent of Tomorrow in the New York State Pavilion was opened to the public yesterday (one day only!) in conjunction with next week's debut of the Queens Museum exhibition "13 Most Wanted Men: Andy Warhol and the 1964 World's Fair."
In the early 1960s, while preparing for the upcoming World's Fair, Governor Nelson Rockefeller commissioned Johnson to design the state's pavilion. The pavilion is divided into three parts: the Tent of Tomorrow, an elliptical, open-air amphitheater with a cable suspension roof that functioned and looked much like a bicycle wheel, supporting a beautiful multi-colored ceiling; the Observation Towers, three concrete columns that were ascended by outdoor glass elevators; and the Theaterama, which was a theater. All of these structures existed prior to the 1997 blockbuster Men In Black. It was the Theaterama that became the site of controversy. For other noteworthy controversies, you can read up on Robert Moses' legacy and the Nazism of Philip Johnson.
Johnson asked ten artists to produce work to adorn the Theaterama in 20' x 20' spaces ultimately coming together in a large mural. Andy Warhol, one of the invited artists who was still mostly unknown, created the 13 Most Wanted Men, thirteen blown-up mugshots from the NYPD's most wanted list in 1962. The panels were installed on April 15th, a week before the opening, and washed out with silver paint days later due to some "objections at the highest level."
One of the enduring mysteries is exactly who objected to Warhol's piece. Larrisa Harris, Curator at the Queens Museum, wrote: "There is no satisfactory answer to the question of why it was ordered covered over. Years after the incident itself, Philip Johnson explained that Rockefeller, vulnerable because of his faltering bid for the Republican nomination for President, said the work must go because seven out of the 13 men had Italian names and he was unwilling to alienate this constituency."
Warhol not only offered up an alternative mural, but actually created a replacement for it: 25 now lost panels of a smiling Robert Moses, although there was never any evidence that Moses was behind, even in part, the censorship. The exhibition has assembled a later set of the Most Wanted Men works that Warhol produced, adding some biographical information from the NYPD, and nine of them are on display at the Museum, along with assorted photographs, films, and Warhol ephemera.
In the gallery here you can see images from the Warhol exhibition as well as pictures from inside the Tent of Tomorrow. There is a public campaign for revitalization efforts ongoing, led by the Historic Preservation group at the City of New York Parks & Recreation, which has gained some attention and money (with more money possibly on the way).
Ideally, the New York State Pavilion would be restored and reopened for public use, as it was originally intended to be a permanent part of Queens. While the overall structure is in good shape, Director of Historic Preservation John Krawchuk told us there are still major obstacles, due to the roof removal and subsequent water damage. Obviously, one of the more immediate goals is to get a roof back on. Additionally, the concrete cylinders that surround the pavilion are supported underneath by 90 feet of wooden piles, which, though costly, need to be restored. The National Trust for Historic Preservation designated the pavilion a "National Treasure" yesterday.
The Warhol exhibit at the Queens Museum of Art will open April 27th and run through September 7th.