Bush Monkeys, a small acrylic on canvas by Chris Savido, created the stir at the Chelsea Market public space on Monday, leading the market's managers to close down the 60-piece show.
The show featured art from the upcoming issue of Animal Magazine, a quarterly publication featuring emerging artists.
"We had tons of people, like more than 2000 people show up for the opening on Thursday night," said show organiser Bucky Turco.
"Then this manager saw the piece and the guy just kind of flipped out. 'The show is over. Get this work down or I'm gonna arrest you,' he said. It's been kind of wild."
Turco took the show down on Saturday and moved the art work to his small downtown Animal Gallery. Calls to the management of Chelsea Market for comment were not returned.
Artist speaks out
From afar, the painting offers a likeness of Bush, but when the viewer gets closer they can see the image is made up of chimpanzees or monkeys swimming in a marsh.
The 23-year-old Savido said he was surprised by the strong reaction to his painting, listed in the catalogue at $3500.
"It seems like people got a kick out of it," Savido said. "When they really see it, they almost do a double-take. I like to get a reaction from people."
The Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania-bred artist said he was happy for all the attention paid to his work but said the decision to shutter the exhibit was a blatant act of censorship.
Savido plans to auction the painting and donate proceeds to an organisation dedicated to freedom of expression.
"This is much deeper than art. This is fundamental American rights, freedom of speech," Savido said. "To see that something like this can happen, especially in a place like New York City is mind-boggling and scary."