Conrad exhibit captures artists on the cusp of the American Pop Art movement

On a chilly afternoon in 1964, Andy Warhol, along with one of his muses, Taylor Mead, photographer William John Kennedy and his wife, Marie, packed into Kennedy's old VW bug. The destination: Queens, N.Y., where Kennedy wanted Warhol to see a lush field of flowers in an industrial part of town.

As soon as the iconic pop artist spotted the blanket of black-eyed Susans, he raced out of the car.

"It electrified him," Kennedy recalled. "He became gleeful. Jumping around."

It was here that Kennedy captured iconic images of Warhol with his large flower works on canvas, standing among the wild, tall bright-yellow Rudbeckias.

"Instant history!" Kennedy proclaimed.

Those photographs will be among 60 exhibited at "Before They Were Famous: Behind the Lens of William John Kennedy," opening this weekend at the Conrad Indianapolis. "Before They Were Famous," featuring photographs of Warhol and Mooresville native Robert Indiana, runs concurrently at the Site/109 gallery in New York.

Many of the negatives were put into sealed boxes, stored and forgotten, only to be rediscovered by Kennedy and his wife during their 1984 move from New York to Miami. A set will become part of the permanent collection of the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, said director Eric Shiner, who described the photos as "incredible."

"They show a side of Warhol that is often not portrayed," he said. "One as the workaholic and then the playful nature of Warhol."

As a photographer capturing the nascent Pop Art movement in New York City, Kennedy met Warhol and Indiana, now best-known as the creator of the iconic "LOVE" sculptures.

Before Pop Art had a name, it was being stretched on canvas, sculpted, molded, and yes, even photographed, in different parts of New York, but mostly in a small corner of Manhattan known as Coenties Slip by the East River.

It was during this time that Kennedy met Indiana, head of the Coenties Slip group, as they were known, a group of artists who inspired the aesthetic cool of the time. Indiana was having a small exhibit in a modest New York gallery.

"We hit it off," Kennedy, now 82, recalled. "I decided I wanted to start photographing leading young artists in the city."

Indiana invited Kennedy up to his studio, where the young photographer couldn't help notice there were no windows -- strange for an artist's studio.

"Don't you have any windows in here?" he asked. His host walked him over to an unfinished brick wall.

"I thought he was nuts." Very carefully, Indiana pulled a single brick from the wall, and bid Kennedy to peek through the opening. "Looking through you could see this marvelous panoramic of the New York City skyline."

And so the magic began.

Just by luck, Kennedy attended an art exhibit in New York where Indiana was sharing space with Warhol. There, Kennedy took the only photographs of the two young pop artists together. Soon after, Warhol called Kennedy and invited him to start photographing him.

"I came so close to dismissing the phone call because of this very slight voice," he said. "I thought at first it was one of my friends playing a trick on me. But then I could feel the seriousness in his voice. I sensed it was the real deal, so I took him up on his invitation."

Warhol summoned him to his Midtown studio, The Factory. "You had to take this creaking old elevator, go up five flights . . . It comes to an abrupt stop on the fifth floor," Kennedy recalled. "Andy is there to meet me at the elevator door. The first thing I noticed was all the art. Everywhere. Every inch of this huge studio is covered in art."

Kennedy and his wife occasionally went to parties at the Factory, though that really wasn't their scene. "It was loaded with many 'hangers-on,' " Marie Kennedy recalled. Besides, Kennedy was busy making his own mark in fine art and commercial photography, eventually shooting for Life magazine, Sports Illustrated, American Express and IBM.

But in 1963, the year before he married Marie, he was just starting out. He paid $70 a month for his rented studio space at 161 W. 23rd St., between 7th and 8th avenues. It was a photographer's dream, with its north light streaming through the 10-foot-by-11-foot window.

"Always from the beginning, my aim was to always be a photojournalist and to have that freedom in my work," he said. Kennedy credits his progressive-thinking aunt, who raised him from the age of 7 in Long Island, N.Y., as cultivating his appreciation of art and photography.

"It was she who exposed me to the terrible world I am involved in. Though I believe I was born with art in my heart."

Kennedy and his wife, who live in Miami, will attend the exhibit's opening at the Conrad. They will be joined in Indianapolis by old friend and Factory superstar Ultra Violet. She will also be showing works and unveiling a fine-art prototype of a 9/11 memorial piece.