An innocuous-looking man stares out from this canvas's surface, his bookish round glasses and stifled smile belying one of Andy Warhol's most gruesome and fascinating works. The face in question belongs to Ellis Ruiz Baez, a 55-year-old hotel worker wanted by the New York Police Department for murder. A celebrated work in Andy Warhol's renowned Thirteen Most Wanted Men series, this painting is among the most important and scandalous of his career. By using a grainy, black-and-white newspaper photograph of the killer as his source image, Warhol deliberately confuses the vague figurative image with empty mechanical abstraction in a work that stands at the very heart of Warhol's art of the 1960s.
Warhol's Most Wanted Men made their first appearance as a twenty foot-square mural, commissioned from the artist by the legendary architect Philip Johnson to adorn his pavilion at the 1964 New York World's Fair. The controversial subject matter - a parade of vastly enlarged but otherwise unadulterated police mug-shots of the thirteen "most wanted" criminals in New York State - caused such uproar and upset that the Fair's organizers ordered them to be painted over. As Warhol wryly played on the idiosyncratic notion of celebrity, the strange similarity between being "wanted" and desired in a culture that often venerates the "outlaw" was not lost on him. With this work, he essentially replaces the celebrity of the Hollywood starlets whom he had previously portrayed with a new, more chilling variety, thereby turning a rogue's gallery into a shocking "hall of fame". The ultimate irony of this act was also not lost on Warhol, who said that, "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 really still up there. This is because more than anything people just want stars" (A. Warhol, The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (From A to B and Back Again), New York, 1975, p. 85).
Warhol had been using police photography for some time as the source material of his paintings of car-crashes and suicides. These "mug shots" were, like photo-booth images, "readymade" portraits, which for Warhol represented yet another fascinating side of the fame industry: those whose crimes had made them famous. Warhol made these "celebrity" portraits in the immediate aftermath of the Kennedy assassination while he was also engrossed in the film noir-like subject matter of his Death and Disaster series and his portraits of the grieving Jackie Kennedy. These "celebrity" portraits on a New York theme struck right at the zeitgeist's heart, while also invoking another, underworld, America.
Painted in the spring of 1964, Most Wanted Men No. 3, Ellis Ruiz B. is one of a series of paintings on canvas that Warhol made shortly after the organizers of the fair destroyed his mural by having it painted all over in silver. Warhol created this series of paintings (13 subjects on 22 separate canvases) in direct response to this authoritarian act of destruction, and then left them willfully on display at his "Factory" throughout much of 1964. After Warhol joined the Leo Castelli Gallery in September 1964, Warhol consigned these paintings to Castelli and later transferred them to Ileana Sonnabend for their first-ever public exhibition in her Paris gallery in February 1967.
In making these canvases, Warhol sought to erase the gaps in the mural's square-format portraits by screening the images onto canvases that were identical in proportion to the printed image. This feature and the fact that, in enlarging the source images, Warhol reduced these macabre portraits to a near abstract newspaper-like pattern of Ben Day dots, lent them added mystery and menace.
Most Wanted No. 3, Ellis Ruiz B. depicts the third criminal listed in the 1962 NYPD booklet of their Thirteen Most Wanted Men: Ellis Ruiz Baez, aka "The Professor." Baez was a fugitive wanted for a murder committed in January 1943. Because he had fled the scene of the crime before police discovered it, his portrait is one of only four from the booklet that doesn't use an official police mug shot of full-face and profile, but a single image from an unknown source.
Thus, this work takes on a very different function from the double-canvas paintings based on mug shots. In those paintings, the police photographed the criminal while in police custody, after the crime has been committed and while the defendant knowingly faces the full force of the law and any remorse (or lack thereof) about their crime. In a single image painting, like that of Ellis Ruiz Baez, the photograph was taken in advance of the crime and cannot be thought to contain or reveal such information.
Even so, this does not seem to affect how we look at them. Once we know the criminally damning caption of such an image, we instinctively scour the image itself for some clue to the ensuing disaster. Such a belief in the prescience of disaster is, after all, what makes Warhol's Marilyn paintings so fascinating. It is a belief that David Antin, writing about the Most Wanted Men in 1966 before they were exhibited, described as "the moment of truth made visible." It is the same conviction, he said, "spewed up in columns of drivel in the papers, reams of poems, learned dissections by psychiatrists and sociologists" that "compels ... subway riders to stare into the faces of the British moors murderers or the troubled features of a strangled bride in the pages of the Daily News" (D. Antin, "Warhol: The Silver Tenement", Art News, Summer 1966, p. 47). It was the same belief that made Dostoyevsky's existential "idiot" Prince Myshkin insist that the only portraits worth painting were those of condemned men - men who, he believed, in facing the abyss, suddenly knew everything about life, a realization we might see revealed on their face.
Warhol explored and exploited this mysterious, primitive and mystical veneration of the image - the power of the icon, and the iconic power of such things as the Front-Page of the newspaper - in his paintings of the Thirteen Most Wanted Men. These paintings possess the graininess of newspaper print, its raw ordinariness and manifest banality, especially in non-mug shot portraits such as that of Ellis Ruiz Baez. 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.
It was the exceptional qualities of banality and ordinariness in these nevertheless incredibly powerful and irresistibly fascinating works that prompted Heiner Bastian in 2001 to use the Most Wanted series as the centerpiece of his Warhol retrospective. Most Wanted Men No. 3, Ellis Ruiz B. hovers between banality and evil, between abstraction and figuration, reality and fiction, the legal and the illicit, fame and anonymity. It powerfully, silently echoes Nietzsche's warning that when you gaze into the abyss, the abyss also gazes into you. A masterpiece of Warhol's cold aesthetic, it also bears out the truth of his statement that even "if you're a crook you're still considered up there ... because more than anything people just want stars."
Most Wanted Men No. 3, Ellis Ruiz B.
Acrylic and silkscreen ink on canvas
PROPERTY FROM AN IMPORTANT EUROPEAN COLLECTION
Signed with stamp 'Andy Warhol' (on the overlap)
Andy Warhol , 20th Century, Paintings, United States of America, Post War
Paris, Galerie Ileana Sonnabend, The Thirteen Most Wanted Men, April 1967, no. 5.
Cologne, Galerie Rudolf Zwirner, Andy Warhol: Most Wanted, September-October 1967.
London, Rowan Gallery, Andy Warhol, March 1968.
Pasadena Art Museum; Chicago, Museum of Contemporary Art; Einhoven, Stedelijk van Abbemuseum; Musée d'Art moderne de la Ville de Paris; London, Tate Gallery; and New York, Whitney Museum of American Art, Andy Warhol, May 1970-July 1971, no. 11 (Eindhoven), no. 35 (Paris), pp. 72 and 93, no. 35 (London; illustrated)
Kunsthaus Zurich, Andy Warhol, May-July 1978, pp. 128 and 208, no. 94 (illustrated).
New York, Gagosian Gallery, Andy Warhol: Most Wanted Men, April-June 1988, no. 6.
Houston, The Menil Collection, Andy Warhol: Death and Disasters, October 1988-January 1989, p. 111, no. 36 (illustrated).
Kunstmuseum Lucerne, Andy Warhol: Paintings 1960-1986, July-September 1995, pp. 114 and 164, no. 29 (illustrated in color).
Barcelona, Fundació Joan Miró, Andy Warhol, 1960-1986, September-December 1996, p. 106, no. 37 (illustrated).
Zurich, Daros Collection, Warhol, Polke, Richter: In the Power of Painting I: A Selection from the Daros Collection, May-September 2001, p. 68 (illustrated in color).
Berlin, Neue Nationalgalerie; London, Tate Modern; and Los Angeles, Museum of Contemporary Art, Andy Warhol: Retrospektive, October 2001-August 2002, p. 194, no. 131 (illustrated in color).
POST-WAR & CONTEMPORARY ART
48 x 39 1/8 in. (121.9 x 99.4 cm.)
R. Crone, Andy Warhol, New York, 1970, pp. 206 and 302, no. 394 (illustrated).
J. Coplans, Andy Warhol, New York, 1970, p. 137 (illustrated in color).
P. Gidal, Andy Warhol: Films and Paintings, New York, 1971, pp. 76-77 (illustrated).
R. Crone, Die revolutionäre Ästhetik Andy Warhols, Stüttgart, 1972, p. 39 (illustrated).
R. Crone, Das bildnerische Werk Andy Warhols, Berlin, 1976, p. 269, no. 711 (illustrated).
Andy Warhol: Ein Buch Zur Ausstellung Im Kunsthaus Zürich, exh. cat., Zurich, 1978, pp. 128 and 208, no. 94 (illustrated).
K. McShine, Andy Warhol. A Retrospective, exh. cat., New York and Paris, 1989-1990, p. 286 and 478, no. 290 (illustrated in color).
G. Frei and N. Printz, eds., The Andy Warhol Catalogue Raisonné: Paintings and Sculpture, 1964-1969, vol. 02A, New York, 2004, pp. 32, 50 and 383, no. 552, fig. x2 (illustrated in color).
T. Shafrazi, ed., Andy Warhol: Portraits, London and New York, 2007, pp. 51 and 305 (illustrated in color).
R. Dergan and B. Monk, eds., Warhol from the Sonnabend Collection, exh. cat., New York, 2009, pp. 29, 177 and 180-181 (illustrated).
Leo Castelli Gallery, New York
Galerie Ileana Sonnabend, Paris
The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, New York
Thomas Ammann Fine Art, Zurich
Daros Collection, Zurich
Private collection, Europe
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