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A Portrait of Arnold as a Young Art Object
Schwarzenegger's 1977 Brush with Fame, Wyeth and Warhol

audio iconPart 1: Jay Kernis reports on Jamie Wyeth's painting of Schwarzenegger.

audio iconPart 2: Kernis' 1977 conversation with Schwarzenegger about the painting.

Long before becoming NPR's senior vice-president for programming, Jay Kernis worked as a correspondent for an NPR weekly arts magazine. In 1977 he encountered Arnold Schwarzenegger: not as an actor or politician, but as a cause célèbre in the art world. In this essay, Kernis reflects on his first meeting with the newly inaugurated California governor -- and on the nature of celebrity.

Jamie Wyeth's portrait of Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Artist Jamie Wyeth's 1977 portrait of Arnold Schwarzenegger posing in Andy Warhol's New York "Factory" studio. The painting caused a stir when it was exhibited at the Coe-Kerr Gallery in New York.
Credit: Copyright Jamie Wyeth/Courtesy of the Artist

Enlarge image.

Nov. 17, 2003 -- When it was announced that Arnold Schwarzenegger had won California's recall election, I decided to satisfy a curiosity that itched at me throughout the campaign: What did Schwarzenegger and I talk about in 1977?

I knew I had conducted the first NPR interview with him, but I retained no memory of what we had discussed.

I did remember that there was considerable interest when Schwarzenegger came to NPR's Washington, D.C. studios. The control room was filled with onlookers. Most of us scrawny public radio types had never seen such a large human being in person. I also recalled that he was quite charming. But what did I ask him?

NPR was not as well known then. All Things Considered was only six years old, Morning Edition was two years away from being invented, and many member stations programmed an eclectic mix of classical music, jazz, folk, vintage radio drama and public affairs programming.

I was a producer and an interviewer for an NPR weekly arts magazine, Voices in the Wind, hosted by folksinger and songwriter Oscar Brand. We covered the world of artists, authors, singers, actors, directors, dancers and photographers.

For his part, Schwarzenegger had won the titles of Mr. Universe and Mr. Olympia, and yes, his life thus far had been packaged into the newly released documentary Pumping Iron and into a book: The Education of a Bodybuilder. But I still couldn't imagine why Voices in the Wind would have been interested in a bodybuilder.

So I called up the tape -- yes, a reel-to-reel tape -- from the NPR archives. And it ends up that in November 1977 I had done exactly what an arts producer was supposed to do: an arts interview. Actually, two of them.

First, with Fred Woolworth, owner of the Coe-Kerr Gallery in New York City. The gallery was presenting an exhibit of the paintings of Jamie Wyeth, son of Andrew Wyeth and grandson of N.C. Wyeth. Wyeth the younger had inherited his family's ability to capture the soul of a person, animal or farmhouse on canvas.

The Coe-Kerr exhibit included an extraordinary portrait of famed Russian ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev, but the one that caused the big stir was that of the weightlifter. Critics at the time attacked the subject, not the artist.

Wyeth had painted Schwarzenegger as he posed by a window in Andy Warhol's legendary New York "Factory" studio while hundreds of people watched for hours from the street. For the exhibit, the painting that resulted was priced at $50,000.

And during our 1977 interview, Schwarzenegger did talk about art. He said that he never saw that much difference between what a bodybuilder did with his body or what a sculptor does with a piece of clay or marble.

He also said this: "I see myself in a way as an artist, by sculpting my body, and it was really strange seeing somebody translate this -- what he sees -- into his hands and then put it on canvas, which is so incredible, because I cannot do that. I can look into a mirror and change my physical shape from one stage to another on my own body, and I can visualize how I want to look, but I cannot put it on paper. And he has this incredible ability."

Was there anything in this quarter-century-old interview that indicated that Arnold Schwarzenegger might one day become a nationally known political figure? Not exactly. But California's new governor did say he learned a lot from time spent with Andy Warhol -- a man remembered not only for influential art, but as an expert on the seemingly inexorable limits of fame and celebrity.

Related NPR Stories

moreSchwarzenegger Prepares for Transition to Power

moreSchwarzenegger Adapts Skills to New Job

moreThe Cultural Impact of Arnold Schwarzenegger

MoreBush, Schwarzenegger Hold First Talks

MoreSchwarzenegger Wins California Recall

MoreBehind 'Pumping Iron'

MoreMore NPR Stories on Arnold Schwarzenegger

Web Resources

  • Jamie Wyeth's Web Site