Senior Lecture in Screen Studies at Melbourne University Dr. Wendy Haslem has further explored the deep significance of Warhol’s films in the history of media and pop art.
The avant-garde artist and filmmaker, Andy Warhol (1928-1987), is renowned for his influence on the development of pop art and the resultant collapse of the opposition between high art and popular culture. The Tate Gallery understands him as, ‘popularly radical and radically popular, Warhol … reimagined what art could be in an age of immense social, political and technological change.’ (Tate). The film critic P. Adams Sitney sees Warhol’s shift into filmmaking as one which he entered ‘with total commitment’ and ‘immediately began to produce major cinema’ (349).
Throughout his career Warhol tested the boundaries of art and filmmaking, redefining what it means to be a viewer.
According to Arthur C. Danto, Andy Warhol ‘retired from painting in 1965’ and devoted himself to the creation of the moving image, transforming ‘the Silver Factory … into a film studio’ (74). However, to suggest a distinct break between the paintings, silkscreen prints, or soft sculptures and the films that he made from the mid 1960s diminishes the presence and continuity of Warhol’s experiments with materials and obsession with celebrity, all of which is evident in his films. The multiple screens of Warhol's Chelsea Girls (1996) originate in the juxtaposition of repeated images within his screen prints. The singular perspective and repetition that is evident in the screen prints becomes an obsession with duration in the six-hour film of a man sleeping in his film Sleep (1964). This is extended to an almost unimaginable 485-minute, or 8 hour experience of a single view of the Empire State Building in Empire (1964). Sitney understands Warhol’s experiments in duration as producing a ‘conscious ontology of the viewing experience’ (351). In Warhol’s films, spectators are engaged in conscious awareness, not merely passive consumption.
Sitney describes Warhol’s experiments in durational cinema as creating ‘a cinema actively engaged in generating metaphors for the viewing or rather the perceiving, experience’ (351). Warhol teased the audience with Kiss (1963), a 50 minute film showing 3 and a half minute kisses from 14 couples that fall just below the temporal threshold for kissing that was allowed on American screens. He then taunted censors with Blow Job (1964), a film that is clearly named for what we assume is happening outside of the frame. In duration, or in the taboo nature of the images on screen, his films make us aware of our own existence as spectators, or even voyeurs watching a private scene unfold. Across his career Warhol made more than 1500 films of which 472 of these were screen tests, or ‘stillies’ as he called them (Angelli, 7). Warhol saw these films as offering audiences an opportunity to become acquainted with themselves.
Andy Warhol, Screen Test: Jane Holzer [ST141], 1964
16mm film, black and white, silent, 4 minutes 24 seconds
©2020 The Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh, PA, a museum of Carnegie Institute. All rights reserved.
Film still courtesy The Andy Warhol Museum
The short films that form part of 13 Most Beautiful: Songs For Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests are not auditions, or tests for future films as they might have been in Hollywood. These are black and white filmed portraits of artists and visitors to Warhol’s Silver Factory. Brigitte Weingard argues that what is revealed in these films is the model’s, ‘”screen magnetism” … the secret … invisible forces that can only be seen by the eyes of a camera’ (47). Whilst the identity of the star differs, each is filmed using Warhol’s Bolex camera set on a tripod and a single roll of 16mm film. Weingard tells us that the ‘2.8 minutes of recording (in sound speed, although no sound is recorded)’ becomes closer to 4 minutes of screen time when exhibited at 16 frames per second, silent speed (48). This results in dreamily paced, high contrast, black and white images that are framed in a square aspect ratio. Caught inside a fixed frame, our attention is drawn to the performance of the Superstar, to their struggle to remain still, to their micro expressions. The filming process also reveals some of the markers of the celluloid material. Some of the screen tests contain traces of the filmmaking process itself: white dots, quivering frames, scratches on the film. When they were exhibited in the late 60s these films were accompanied by strobe lights, mirror balls and some were backdrops for live performances by the Velvet Underground. The addition of Dean Wareham and Britta Phillips’s musical score weaves in a more contemporary layer, often retrospectively capturing aspects of the Superstar’s history.
13 Most Beautiful: Songs For Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests opens with the remarkably still image of the poet Ann Buchanan. Of all of Warhol’s screen tests, surely this is the most static. Buchanan’s face and neck are framed in a close up and she holds an unblinking expression throughout the duration of the shot. Amid the stillness, it is the tiny details of Buchanan’s expression that are captivating and ultimately, very moving. As the poet watches the camera, the audience are able to watch her in a way that might otherwise be felt as intrusive. She seems to have one eye darker than the other. Buchanan barely moves, save for a flickering eyelid or the slight movement of her neck as she finally acquiesces to the need to swallow. Her tenacity is evident as she wins the contest with herself to remain as still as possible. However, the cost of the struggle appears in the pinpoint lights that are reflected in her eyes. The lights seem to replicate, two become four as tears well up in her eyes. The darkness on her left only makes that more visible. The surface of the face and the depth of emotion that is expressed are mirrored in the fleeting notes and longer sounds that are performed by Wareham and Phillips.
Some of the 13 Most Beautiful refer to Warhol’s artworks in a hyperconscious way. The short film featuring Lou Reed shows the musician wearing dark, wrap around sunglasses and drinking coke. Reed takes a drink from the bottle and twists it so that the camera can capture the ubiquitous, globally recognised logo, one that signals the power of American consumer culture in what would become a deeply globalised world. This is an object that Warhol highlighted in his previous silkscreen work Green Coca Cola Bottles (1962). The images of the bottles are mechanically reproduced in both the silk screen and in the film print, illustrating Walter Benjamin’s notion of the elusive nature of the original in mechanical reproduction (1936). Wareham and Phillips perform Lou Reed’s own song, ‘Not a Young Man Anymore’ to refer to Reed then and now.
Occasionally, the screen tests reveal the image and technology to be diametrically opposed. The image of the photographer Richard Rheem doesn’t quite settle into the frame at first. This Superstar is remarkable for the singular force of his stare, one that appears to have the effect of destabilising the technology. The camera loses focus and shudders. It is almost as if the eye of the camera blinks, or struggles to see clearly. Eventually it re-frames and gradually returns to clarity, taking an increasingly tight frame in an attempt to control the image. The screen test of the singer Nico begins intimately with the camera shooting the subject seemingly in private moments as she reads and reflects. However, during the filming Nico rolls up her magazine and uses it to look back beyond the frame, reinstating her own perspective and focusing on what remains invisible to the viewer.
In other situations the screen tests become microcosms for the Superstar themselves. The image of a young Dennis Hopper exposes his potential for storytelling. His initial furrowed brow, an expression of concern, gradually gives way to revelation as his eyes open and he nods in acknowledgement of a problem considered and resolved, a microcosm of the storytelling processes that he would be involved with in his career as actor, photographer and filmmaker. Mary Woronov maintains an assured gaze directly at the camera and by extension, the viewer. She looks at us, unblinkingly, for an elongated time. Subsequently, the Superstar gives the game away, without losing, and focuses instead on what is happening off screen. Wareham based this particular soundtrack on Woronov’s own understanding of the screen tests as showing the performer’s façade falling away, revealing traces of the real self (n.p.). Images of other Superstars are more elusive. Dean Wareham tells us that Ingrid Superstar went out for cigarettes, left her false teeth in the sink and was not heard of again (n.p.). The haunting synth pop melody underscores this loss.
Thomas Sokolowski described Warhol’s art as a ‘mirror of his time’ (n.p.) and while it is inextricably linked to the rise of pop art, its impact endures. Warhol may not have imagined his screen tests accompanied by Wareham and Phillips’s soundtrack, nor would he have dreamed of them screening at Bunjil Place. He may not have anticipated the continued influence of his experiments in film, photography and painting reaching us, inspiring our own creative works. Warhol has been described as ‘a skilled (analogue) social networker’ (The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts). If he were alive today, we would see Warhol as an influencer as well as an artist. His impact lives on in his films, art and in the belief that ‘everyone will be world famous for fifteen minutes’ (The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts).
Dr Wendy Haslem is the Senior Lecturer in Screen Studies and Director of the Bachelor of Arts at the University of Melbourne. She teaches and researches the intersections of film history and new media. She has authored numerous articles included in publications such as Intellect, Experimentia and Routledge.
Book your ticket to The 13 Most Beautiful: Songs for Andy Warhol Screen Tests as part of the Photo 2021 Festival program.
Bibliography and Filmography:
13 Most Beautiful: Songs For Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests (2009) Andy Warhol Museum, soundtracks by Dean Wareham and Britta Phillips, New York: Plexifilm, DVD.
Callie Angell (2006) Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests: The Films of Andy Warhol: Catalogue Raisonné, New York: H.N. Abrams, Whitney Museum of American Art.
Walter Benjamin (1936) ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’, in Arendt, Hannah (ed.) Illuminations, New York: Schocken Books.
Blow Job (Andy Warhol, 16mm film, 1964)
Arthur C. Danto (2009) Andy Warhol, New Haven: Yale University Press.
P. Adams Sitney (2002) Visionary Film: The American Avant-Garde 1943-2000, 3rd ed., Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Empire (Andy Warhol, 16mm film, 1964)
Kiss (Andy Warhol, 16mm film, 1963)
Thomas Sokolowski (2008) ‘Chimeras of the Camera’, in 13 Most Beautiful: Songs For Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests (2009) Andy Warhol Museum, soundtracks by Dean Wareham and Britta Phillips, New York: Plexifilm, Booklet.
Dean Wareham (2008) ‘Dean Wareham on Scoring the Screen Tests’, in 13 Most Beautiful: Songs For Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests (2009) Andy Warhol Museum, soundtracks by Dean Wareham and Britta Phillips, New York: Plexifilm, Booklet.
Brigitte Weingart (2010) ‘”That Screen Magnetism”: Warhol’s Glamour’, October, April 1st.