Among his vast pantheon of American cultural icons, the subject of Andy Warhol’s Most Wanted Men No. 11, John Joseph H., Jr. stands as one of the most striking. With his chiseled features, dark, smoldering eyes and wavy brown hair, the face that stares out from the surface of this canvas could easily belong to one of the teenage matinee idols with which the artist began his career. Yet, with a police ID slate pinned to his jacket, and rendered in a shroud of portentous monochromatic Ben-day dots, this 22-year-old is actually a dangerous criminal, an armed robber wanted by the New York City Police Department. Painted in 1964, this diptych belongs to one of the artist’s most controversial series; originally conceived as a monumental mural to celebrate the 1964 New York World’s Fair, just a few days before the fair’s official opening in April, it was dramatically painted over, apparently at the behest of the artist. Later that year, Warhol made a series of nearly two dozen larger than life size canvases featuring thirteen of these “most wanted” men, many of which were exhibited for the time 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 two versions of, with this particular work’s sister painting being housed in the permanent collection of the Museum für Moderne Kunst, Frankfurt am Main. With his boyish good looks rendered in Ben-day dots, Most Wanted Men No. 11 John Joseph H., Jr is a haunting reminder of the dark underside of America during a time when, outwardly at least, the country was projecting a confident, forward looking culture to the rest of the world.
Of all of Warhol’s most wanted men, the image of John Joseph Henehan Jr. is arguably the most disconcerting. Set against a light ground, the dark image that Warhol has screened onto the canvas is ominous in its looming presence. With no other details to distract our gaze, we are forced to focus on the young man’s features; his dark, penetrating eyes capture our attention, his movie-star good looks belie the danger that lies behind them. The clarity of the screen allows many individual details to be seen in crisp lucidity; from the individual curls of hair of his fashionable quiff, to the reflection of the police photographer’s flashbulb in his eye, the level of detail in this particular example is unrivalled within the series. This dichotomy between the clarity of the image, and the obscurity of the subject combines to make this series one of the artist’s most complex and engaging observations of American culture.
Like any good detective story, the origins of Warhol’s Most Wanted series comes with a series of dramatic twists and turns. In 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 centerpiece of the New York State Pavilion at the World’s Fair to be held the following year. For his part, Warhol decided to reproduce, on a monumental scale, thirteen mugshots of various criminals taken from a booklet entitled The Thirteen Most Wanted Men produced by the NYPD. Some of the mugshots were double aspect (front-on and in profile), others a just single shot of the men (and they were all men), that the police department considered to be their most dangerous and sought-after criminals. These sparse compositions, consisting of tightly cropped portraits showing little more than the suspects’ gnarled features, 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 up to our vivid 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 a NYPD officer called Jimmy O’Neill. He was able to procure the images for Warhol and according to Giorno, O’Neill obtained a large envelope filled with various crime photos, mug shots and archival photographs which he passed onto Warhol (J. Giorno, Andy Warhol’s Movie Sleep in You and got to Burn to Shine: New and Selected Writings, London, 1994, p. 127).
Of the mugshots that Warhol selected, the one of John Joseph Henehan Jr. is perhaps the most enigmatic. Other subjects like John Victor Guisto and Andrew Ferraiola look as though they could have come straight from central casting, but with his good looks and chiseled features, Henehan wouldn’t have looked out of place in one of the era’s teen heart-throb magazines. His square jaw is defined by a swathe of darker—more closely compacted—dots which casts a subtle shadow across the face. Set against a pale background, the subject’s distinctive quiff stands silhouetted with just the right amount of rebellious bravado. But this outward appearance hides a darker, violent character as the circumstances of Henehan’s crime is described in the original police booklet. On February 28th, 1959, Henehan Jr. along with three others, 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 prior, aged 19, he had been arrested in possession of a gun and given parole. Two years after that, he was arrested for the possession of a small amount of heroin and drug paraphernalia, but on these charges he was later acquitted. He had been indicted for the Queens robbery by a Grand Jury, but had absconded before the trial, and in addition to that he was also wanted by the F.B.I on a charge of unlawful flight from custody.
This ‘bad-boy’ persona appealed to Warhol. In the chapter on the Most Wanted series contained 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)” he says. “Even as the portraits of Thirteen Most Wanted always remained recognizable as criminal photographs, they also mobilize other interpretive possibilities, including, but not limited to, an outlawed imagery of gay desire and cruising. Beyond its direct critique of State power, the mural suggests that the prohibition of homosexuality may imbue same-sex desire with all the gritty allure of the mug shot” (R. Meyer, Outlaw Representation: Censorship and Homosexuality in Twentieth Century Art, Boston, 2002, pp. 139-140). 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.
As such, the Thirteen Most Wanted Men series was controversial from the start. The large-scale mural was painted over just days after it was first installed, although the exact reasons have proved to be difficult to ascertain. Initially it was thought that Warhol himself had instigated this process, saying that he wasn’t happy with the final result. Indeed, press reports at the time reported 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 yesterday that he was in agreement with the artist and ordered the mural removed from the building” (quoted by R. Meyer, ibid., p. 132). However, 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 Americans heritage, and the Governor was worried that this would upset an important and influential political lobby. But perhaps more logically, it might have been felt by the fair’s organizers that a work of art depicting armed robbers and murderers (including a child murderer) was not in keeping with the fair’s theme of “Man’s Achievement on a Shrinking Globe in an Expanding Universe” (quoted by A. Garn, Exit to Tomorrow: Architecture, Design, Fashion 1933-2005, New York, 2007, p. 129). Whereas the 1964 World’s Fair was designed to look unashamedly to the future, Warhol’s contribution seemed to hark back to America’s fabled history of lawlessness and violence. Whatever the precise circumstances around this act of censorship (or self-censorship), the resulting controversy has meant this series has an important place in the artist’s oeuvre.
Most Wanted Men No. 11, John Joseph H., Jr. sits firmly within the body of Warhol’s work that deals with death, disaster and tragedy. Chronologically speaking, his Most Wanted Men paintings come immediately before one of Warhol’s most haunting and dark series—his portraits of Jackie Kennedy, the wife of the assassinated President John F. Kennedy. Using press photographs taken immediately after the fateful events in Dallas, Warhol reflected the grief, shock and stoicism not only experienced by the First Lady, but also by the entire nation. Like millions of Americans, Warhol watched the drama unfold on television, but rather than join in the profound sense of grief that overwhelmed his fellow citizens, the artist had a different, typically Warholian, reaction “Well, let’s get to work,” he is reported to have said to his studio assistant Gerard Malanga. His interest was not necessarily in capturing or replicating the emotional intensity; rather the artist was more interested in the near-hysterical media coverage of the event. “I don’t think I missed a stroke… It didn’t bother me that much that he was dead” Warhol is quoted as saying. “What bothered me was the way television and radio were programming everyone to feel so sad. It seemed no matter how hard you tried, you couldn’t get away from the thing” (A. Warhol, quoted by T. Scherman & D. Dalton, Pop: The Genius of Andy Warhol, New York, 2009, p. 185).
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 where he used pre-existing images that represented modern American culture, Warhol seeks to embrace the entire range of Americana. As Meyer points out, Warhol’s work from this period become a peinture noire of sorts; like the film noire of the 40s and 50s it 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” (R. Meyer, Outlaw Representation; Censorship and Homosexuality in the Twentieth-Century American Art, Boston, 2000, p. 136). In works such as the present example, by elevating the criminal visage to a form of high art Warhol is aligning these nefarious figures with his own earlier celebrity portrayals. Indeed, as the artist himself later commented, “Nowadays if you’re a crook you’re still considered up there. You can write books, go on TV, give interviews—you’re a big celebrity and nobody even looks down on you because you’re a crook. You’re still really up there. This is because more than anything people just want to become stars” (A. Warhol, quoted by R. Meyer, Outlaw Representation; Censorship and Homosexuality in the Twentieth-Century American Art, Boston, 2000, p. 136).
With works such as this, Warhol was again ahead of his time. Thirty years later, 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 ‘#hotfelon’ (personified by Jeremy Meeks who was sent to prison for arms possession before landing a full-time modeling contract 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. Our prurient sense of voyeurism and fascination with the machinations of celebrity are combined in a work such as this. By taking a publicly available image and turning it into a work of high art, Warhol is not only commenting on the changing nature of art, but also the cultural values we thought we all held so dear.
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 a new generation of New School painters and sculptors that included Robert Rauschenberg, John Chamberlain and Larry Rivers; other artists who frequented the venue included Brice Marden, Roy Lichtenstein, Richard Serra, Donald Judd and Dan Flavin. The Velvet Underground played there regularly, and it became the unofficial headquarters for the emerging glam rock scene, and saw regular appearances by Marc Bolan, David Bowie, Iggy pop, Lou Reed and Alice Cooper. But perhaps their most famous patron was Warhol himself, who—together with his entourage—would often frequent the famous backroom, taking over the entire space and turning it into the epicenter of New York night life at the time. In addition to this distinguished provenance, the painting has been included in a number of important exhibitions including the seminal retrospective of Warhol’s work organized by New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 1989, and which later travelled to the Hayward Gallery in London and the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris.
Throughout his career, Warhol explored society’s mysterious, primitive and mystical veneration of the image, exploiting the power of the icon to its fullest extent. From Coca-Cola bottles to soup cans, and celebrities to royalty, his work ranged the full gamut of our cultural visual lexicon. His paintings of the Thirteen Most Wanted Men are located at crossroads of celebrity and criminality; they possess the low-quality graininess of newspaper print, yet extend into the realms of high art. These works challenge the viewer with starkly ordinary, mundane realism at the very same time that their “celebrity status” seduces us into investing them with mystery or meaning.