Pop-art icon Andy Warhol, best known for paintings of soup cans and silk-screened images of celebrities, also took thousands — maybe tens of thousands — of photographs, and 152 of them joined the collection of the Hearst Art Gallery at St. Mary's College this week.
"This will be our 15 minutes of fame," gallery director Carrie Brewster said before the photographs — a gift of the New York-based Andy Warhol Foundation — were "unveiled" Tuesday in an otherwise empty but freshly painted gallery.
They won't go on public display until October 2009, when they can be fit into the exhibit schedule.
Julie Armistead, the gallery's registrar and collections manager, cracked open the package Monday, after it had sat three days in a storage room to acclimate to Moraga's environment. Before an audience of the gallery staff, a journalism professor who is a Warhol authority, a reporter and two photographers, Armistead opened the 13-by-12-by-3-inch black box again.
Padded with ordinary bubble wrap, a three-ring binder was thick with plastic sleeves holding the 152 Polaroid images and black-and-white prints, photographs taken from 1976 to 1986. Warhol died in 1987.
There were a few celebrities: Dolly Parton, carefully made up and coiffed but otherwise expressionless; Pia Zadora, ditto except for bright red lipstick; Gianni Versace, glowering at the camera; Ronald Reagan Jr. in a series of informal black-and-white group photos that looked like snapshots; socialite Denise Hale, wearing an exotic sari-like gown and holding a drink; Steve Rubell, one of the powers behind New York's Studio 54 dance club.
As Armistead slipped one minor celebrity's photo out of its sleeve with a white-gloved hand, she covered up another that might be informally titled "Naked Guy's Butt." There were party images, New York street scenes, a collection of pointy-toed, stiletto-heeled shoes, a group of dogs nose-to-nose, and an actor or model posing in black briefs. A lot of photographs were listed on the Warhol Foundation's inventory as "unknown woman."
The foundation is sending similar collections of photographs to 182 other galleries at colleges and universities nationwide, including UC Berkeley, UC Davis, Stanford and the San Francisco Art Institute. It is distributing 28,543 photographs in all, which the foundation says are valued at more than $28 million. That means every shot from Pia Zadora to the unknown naked guy is worth an average of $980.97.
Brewster, the gallery director, described her first impressions of the photographs.
"I think it's fascinating to see what intrigues artists about the world around them," she said. Warhol photographed people he knew and people he did not know, giving each of them a moment in front of his lens and possibly, she said, their own 15 minutes of fame.
"When you see these photos of celebrities, they're people like you and me," she said. "It's kind of a shock. He elevated the unknown people and brought down the famous, so they are in a way equal."
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