THE BLOG
01/26/2015 09:50 am ET Updated Mar 28, 2015

Is It Art? Or, Is It Soup?

Is it Art? Or, is it Soup?
High-brow, low-brow, middle-brow, furrowed-brow, no-brow.

I graduated from college on a freezing, snow-spitting February 1964 morning and was on a 3:00 flight from glass factory-coal mining town Clarksburg, West Virginia, to New York City.

Down the road a bit, that year -- that month, even -- was to be called "the worst ever." To me, 1964, as Frank Sinatra sang, "...was a very good year."

My first week in town: CBS' initial Ed Sullivan Show with the Beatles. Lyndon Johnson's Civil Rights Act. 55-year-old presidential candidate Nelson Rockefeller was having a child with his 37-year-old second wife. Star Attraction at the Tournament of Roses Parade: Miss Betty White. Pop Art. Books: Frank O'Hara's Lunch Poems. Hot novel: The Graduate. And, not least, publication of Ken Kesey's Sometimes a Great Notion.

Big Movies that year: Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton's Cleopatra, not to mention the movie version of My Fair Lady.

On the Boob Tube: Shindig! And brand new game show: Jeopardy. Topping the record charts: The Singing Nuns. On the other hand, Bob Dylan released two albums. And speaking of recording artists, the New York World's Fair's leader, Robert Moses', chosen recording act: Guy Lombardo and the Royal Canadians, his favorite. (I was to touch Lombardo's sleeve during a gig directing Opening Day Parade foot traffic on the Fair grounds. My parents were impressed)

So to this newly transplanted hillbilly, 1964 was the finest year ever. I'd come to New York to make my own contribution to popular culture, and I was smack dab in the middle of it.

I snagged a job right away at the New York World's Fair. At that time, I typed 114 words a minute on an IBM Electric typewriter, and speed was important out there in Flushing Meadow Park. 114 WPM inserted unwanted, unexplained, unnecessary codes -- and made the computers meshugana (crazy). At first the Fair job was dazzling. Stepping onto the Fair Grounds five days a week, sometimes six, was heart racing.

But soon, as reality is wont, the job became stressful, out and out hard work. So much for typing 114 words a minute. I had to learn to use a Friden Flexowriter, forerunner of the word processor, a heavy-duty tele-printer, electronic typewriter. Simply, within parameters, sometimes with nerve-wracking time considerations, I had to type and correct a message on a half-inch tape. Then, I inserted that small strip into a machine that telegraphed -- transported the message -- that went into lights onto giant electronic boards situated all around the Fairgrounds. It sounds like more fun than it was.

I wasn't long on the job when a front page, lowbrow minor controversy/scandal broke at the Fair that led the New York dailies as well as the 6:00 news. I was there!

Fifty years later, that politically motivated scandal, resurfaced.

Details at 11: April 15, 1964, a riveting display, 20 by 20-foot square, Andy Warhol mural of alleged murderers and thieves, called "13 Most Wanted Men," was hung on the façade of the Philip Johnson-designed New York State Pavilion. The Warhol piece had been commissioned by the world-renown, uber, openly-gay architect himself.

In reality, the mural was 13 black and white silkscreen print blowups, actual enlarged mug shots of local thugs, from the New York City Police Department's most monstrous, most wanted, more heinous criminals of 1962. Those 48-inch square front and profile panels, arranged in a checkerboard grid on the Pavilion's bare brick walls, also listed their street-smart-aleck-y aliases above each outsized photograph.

The Story: The only public artwork Andy Warhol ever created was destroyed (censored?) by mahoffs, men at the Fair's top, within 48 hours of its erection -- white washed with a silver metallic paint, and completely obliterated a mere three days later.

And who were the powers that be? The Fair's master-builder Robert Moses got credit and/or blame. The world would soon learn it was actually New York's then-Governor Nelson Rockefeller who issued the decree to dismantle the exhibition. Moderate Republican Rockefeller would presently be launching a GOP presidential nomination. (1964: The second of his three failed attempts). Rockefeller's furrow-browed staff deemed the exhibit bad publicity for him. After all, (gulp) seven of the 13 men had Italian names. ("Sal" looked awfully familiar). Why offend minority voters? And, we don't know if Nelson Rockefeller even knew of the double-entendre message of then-young Warhol's wanted men -- exchanging glances, if you will, wanting one another, like strangers in the night.

What's more, I now realize a half a century later, I experienced the reprehensible tale differently from the locals, as well as the news/information outlets that reported the story. And, frankly, I was too young, too inexperienced, too unexposed, too naïve and way too insecure to express my views. Too bad for me. I am able to confess now, the 13 blow-ups rattled me, brought up unfamiliar feelings and clearly threw me. I was mortified. Furthermore, I'd left West Virginia for a more progressive and freer life in New York and began to wonder: Were the people in New York more provincial than those I'd given up?

I'd abandoned a small town in the hills of West Virginia and left my apprehensions behind, or so I thought. The terror of the Cuban Missile Crisis. The assassination of President John F. Kennedy, three months before my college graduation. And, like Benjamin in the 1963 novel by Charles Webb, The Graduate, what was I going to do with the rest of my life now that I had a degree? I'd pinned my hopes on New York City.

Bottom line: I secretly found the tough and mean-spirited tale -- a censored exhibit of the 13 "Wanted" (double entendre) by Andy Warhol -- mysterious and titillating. It aroused, awakened something deep inside me. Was I turned on, I privately asked myself? Was it a case of what most dictionaries today unabashedly call "homoerotic"? That line up -- those silkscreen blow-ups of hardened criminals -- made me break out in a hot sweat.

Hold the friggin' phone. One, I had a girlfriend; I was not gay. Or, was I? Better yet, I wondered: Was Andy Warhol himself homosexual? Two, I was 100 percent Italian. Was I reacting because these local thugs resembled many of the men in the Calabrian section back home where I'd spent most of my childhood?

In any case, World's Fair visitors themselves found the 13 thugs stern, each and every one, shifty expression-ed; blatantly ugly, they said. Why, some of the convicts even had scary, bruised and swollen faces. But I identified with them, and it was confounding and uncomfortable. What I didn't know at the time: That's what art is supposed to do. One thing, for sure: I was conflicted.

The censored Andy Warhol exhibit then became the main topic of conversation. If that wasn't tricky enough, in comments, fellow employees/co-workers -- as well as Fair patrons -- found Andy Warhol's "13 Most Wanted" exhibit unequivocally "creepy-crawly," "scary," "spooky," "sinister," "disturbing," "unnerving," "nasty," "morbid," "grim," "beastly," and let's not forget "heavy, way too heavy." How could I have been so off the mark?

To boot, but not least, it occurred to even un-exposed, un-savvy, un-sophisticated me that the free press this 24/7 attention-seeking, calculatingly controversial, pop provocateur, publicity hound, Mr. Andy Warhol, then in the early stages of his career, that the free press might prove priceless. Unenlightened me wondered: Was the minor scandal, gratuitous censorship incident enhancing the artist's reputation back in 1964, furthering his career? In the future, I was able to ask him that.

Nevertheless, at the time, Andy Warhol was pissed. But, only for a minute.

Back to April 1964, Fair-goers passing the New York State Pavilion mostly ignored a large bland silver square. But, Andy Warhol himself now caressed his new metallic monochrome. His spin on the mess? Warhol told now-defunct New York World-Telegram: "I don't believe in anything, so this painting is more me now because silver is so nothing. It makes everything disappear." Hurrah!

Next, Warhol re-fashioned his New York studio in silver and aluminum foil dubbing it The Silver Factory. It didn't stop there. Later, he decided -- the incident was begging to be exploited. And exploit it he did. Here's what the genius pop artist created out of disaster (censorship?): That same (1964) summer, Warhol pumped up the 13 to 20 individual portraits of the local thugs, re-mounted and printed their likenesses on narrower canvases to make a fresh, high-brow, more portable set of "20 Most Wanted Men" -- and, he exhibited them in his silver "Factory," then on Manhattan's East 47th Street. Ya gotta love Andy Warhol!

Upshot: On its fiftieth anniversary the art was re-framed and displayed in Queens, New York,* for all to decide Summer of 2014. And these days I, barefoot boy with shoes of brown from the West Virginia Hills, write professionally. In addition to all that, I am no longer hesitant, nor too self-conscious to speak out.

Speeding forward 50 years, Summer 2014, New Yorkers formed their own opinions as Andy Warhol continued to reach to them from the grave. On its golden anniversary, with a generous grant from Henry Luce Foundation, the exhibition was remounted and generously displayed at the *Flushing Meadow Queens Museum. I suspect Mr. Warhol, wherever he is -- is smiling. I sure would like to buy him lunch again.

Lunch with Andy Warhol. Some thirteen years later, after the Fair, I was invited to join a half-a-dozen hip, arty, New York types for a midday meal with Andy Warhol. I pride myself on a surefire, rock hard memory. My mind's eye never lets me down. I do remember that day the soon-to-be-even more famous pop artist wore a blondish-greyish-whitish wig -- distractingly askew. And, I recall the eatery was on the Manhattan's east side in the 40s. This much I do know for sure: The luncheonette sported a faux sun porch effect -- lots of light streamed in. More to the point, I was keen to discuss the 1964 New York World's Fair incident with Warhol. And not long into the lunchtime conversation, I launched in.

Alas, Andy Warhol had changed. The pop art icon had become image-obsessed and was not keen on talking to the press. I have to confess and reveal, heigh-ho and lackaday, the saddest detail of all: When Warhol found out I was affiliated with a New York daily newspaper, he clammed up tighter than Kelsey's nuts. A contradiction, for sure, for this one-time unabashed publicity seeker. When I asked him about the censorship, he turned away. Yep, lunch with Andy Warhol tanked, and I'd give my eyetooth or left testicle (not both) for another shot. Maybe, on the Other Side?

Meanwhile, back at the dude ranch.

Late June, 1964. Aside: Warhol wasn't the only egocentric impacting popular culture that infamous year. A strange bus appeared on the New York World's Fair Grounds.

The vehicle's body was painted a garish swirl of psychedelic colors and mysterious, mystical images. Inside, there were bunk beds, on the roof, an observation turret. The front of the bus had the word "Furthur" incorrectly spelled. The back of the bus read: "Weird Load."

The day I saw it, I was running late and should have stopped in my tracks and investigated "Furthur," but the Fair's brass made sure we earned our $3 an hour and allowed little time for goofing off. What's more I was juggling a new life -- traveling back and forth from an apartment on Manhattan's Upper West Side to Flushing Meadow Park while getting established in New York City. At the time, both of these enterprises for me were a full time job.

Furthur/Further/what I later learned was novelist Ken (One Flew Over the Coo-Coo's Nest) Kesey was publicizing his latest novel Sometimes a Great Notion, and had made a legendary, presently much-written-about, cross country road trip with 14 "Merry Band of Pranksters" in a converted 1939 International Harvester school bus -- driven by Jack (On the Road) Kerouac's buddy Neal Cassady. Hot damn.

That July, dozens of stories surfaced in the Fair's headquarters offices and foot soldier cafeteria of the "happy guys" on that quixotic bus that had mingled with attendees and exhibitors as well. "Handsome guys." "Zonked, they were all zonked." "No deodorant on any of them." "Sexy." "Great, worn, fashion-statement clothes!" "Like, man, out of a movie set." "Cool."

Later, word was: After these hipsters made a cross-country trip to the 1964 New York World's Fair, they were "disappointed" in "Tomorrow Land," the Fair's motto, and said so. It seems Kesey's original outsized objective, he later verbalized, was to make a statement: to proselytize a new lifestyle that he hoped would change... liberate America. Ultimately, down the road a piece, off the record, the stories, the tales, the film footage on-and-about-Ken Kesey and his trip were infinitely more interesting than the money-losing 1964 New York World's Fair itself. Books and documentaries abound.

Sigh. As "the days dwindle down to a precious few" ("September Song"), exactly a half century later, I am inclined toward more conventional, middle brow taste in art as well as people with whom I spend time. My friends are more diverse these days -- yes, some Italians, but a more motley mix of exotic New Yorkers, some of them even the generational off springs of those 13 black and white silkscreen print blowups, which hung so long ago in Flushing Meadow Park. And Andy Warhol has an entire generation of new admirers.

Actor James Franco said recently in Esquire Magazine: "...There are a lot of people who, in the way that they've structured their lives or done certain things, have been influences on me. If I look at Andy Warhol, who did film, he painted, he did photography, he produced music -- to me that is a model where I can say, 'Yeah, why not?'"

And, yes, Andy Warhol influenced yours truly -- big-time also, in the examples he set. He didn't care what anyone else said or did. He had a strong point of view and he was only concerned about his vision. The pop genius had a freedom I didn't even know existed before arriving in Manhattan. And, I went on to write songs, to produce records, to write cover stories for GQ Magazine, to author pieces for a myriad of magazines and newspapers, to publish a novel. And so, in some small way, I did what I'd set out to do: To influence popular culture -- and, granted, the freedom and invitation to do that was due to my early exposure to far-out art, popular culture, and the most successful pop artist of all time, Andy Warhol.

Sprinting forward to 2015, Bloomberg News tells us at auction, Andy Warhol was the top-selling artist in 2014. Specifically, collectors scarfed up 1,295 of his works -- totaling $653 million, far ahead of Pablo Picasso and Francis Bacon. Back in 1964, Warhol was universally known for his Campbell's soup cans and a silk-screen "Triple Elvis," which, by the way, in November 2014, went for a record-setting $82 million at a Christie's auction house.

Ha-Ha-Ha. Who has the last laugh now?

A note of foot: the evocative murals displayed at *QUEENS MUSEUM, NEW YORK CITY BUILDING, Summer 2014 were transported and then later hung/featured in Warhol's hometown, Pittsburgh, at The Andy Warhol Museum, 117 Sandusky St., Pittsburgh, PA 15212-5890).

James A. Fragale -- jamesafragale@yahoo.com