“It was kinda like a form letter,” Nelson Gallery collections manager Robin Bernhard was explaining to her inquisitors Friday. “We couldn’t believe it.” Bernhard referred to the unceremonious procedure by which the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts began distributing 28,543 photographs to 183 U.S. college and university art museums, including the Nelson at UC Davis. “We said, ‘Yeah, sure.’ We didn’t really believe it at first. It was all so easy.”
More ceremonious was the media horde surrounding her. Bernhard, with a clutter of lavaliere microphones clipped to her vest, flashbulbs bouncing off the ceiling and into her face and half a dozen TV cameras peering at her every move, had been charged with the big reveal: the public opening of the box.
All she knew going in was that it contained 50 gelatin silver prints and 100 Polaroids made by the man himself (or possibly, in some instances, by his minions) over the course of a decade, beginning in the mid-1970s.
The package had arrived from New York two days earlier. “One of the conditions is that it acclimate for 48 hours,” Bernhard explained. Conveniently, that seemed like enough time to assemble a swarm of media parasites, too. All told, it wasn’t really much of an event, except for the buzz of its own publicity. In other words, perfectly Warholian.
Now, as Bernhard peeled away the outer layers of the package, the inquisitors demanded narration.
“What your natural reaction would be,” one said.
“Yeah! Natural!” ordered another.
Bernhard had to open it first. Inside the box was another box. She worked, and the journos grew visibly impatient. They trained their cameras on each other, getting shots of getting shots.
They wanted to know how much the loot was worth (its insurance value is just shy of 200 grand). “We could never have made a purchase at all like this,” Nelson Gallery Director Renny Pritikin said.
Inside the second box was a three-ring binder, with the pictures protected by Mylar sleeves and meticulously arranged. The Polaroids came in series, images repeated with minor variations. “He used the camera as a diary as well,” Pritikin offered. “The photographs were used to make paintings. So the people … are posing very self-consciously.” You could see Warhol’s studiousness, his relentless push to make portraits into icons.
Pritikin began explaining his vision of the Nelson Gallery as a teaching museum, a beacon of enlightenment and …
“Schwarzenegger’s wedding!” one of the journos chirped. The swarm buzzed, shutter clicks accelerated.
It was a candid view of celebrity propagating itself: the bride with a mouthful of wedding cake, her groom’s jaw, clamped around the requisite stogie, prominent in the background.
Bernhard flipped through the pages. “It’s just such a privilege to work with original artwork,” she said. “You just want to be with it.” Alone, she meant, but that would have to wait. Dutifully, Bernhard pressed on with the photo-op.
“Might be better if you ask instead of assuming I’m not shooting,” a cameraman barked, as somebody leaned briefly into his lens’ field of view. The put-upon paparazzo seemed crassly unaware that he’d been blocking other people’s views for a good 10 minutes or so himself.
But once their cameras had sufficiently devoured the binder’s contents, everyone was happy. The journalists plucked their mics from Bernhard’s vest, packed up their gear and their attitudes and vanished.