Four-Minute Fame: The Warhol Screen Tests, Part Two

The “Screen Tests” made by Andy Warhol on his 16mm Bolex camera are currently being archived and restored by the Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh; a handful of them have been the subject of a recently closed exhibition at MoMA in NYC. A darkened, spacious fifth floor gallery featured more than a dozen large-screen, flat panel displays of the four-minute films.

MoMA Screen Tests exhibition.

The open atrium overlooking the entry lobby several floors below echoes that hermetic, 60s Silver Factory experience in our own contemporary obsession with self-documentation: a high speed digital camera was set up to record a screen test for anyone who wanted the experience of having your face projected onto the museum’s wall, as well as a digital record of it dangling somewhere on MoMA’s website—rather than on almost obsolete 16mm B&W single-perf. reversal film.

MoMA Screen Test projection on atrium gallery wall.
Free Screen Test—with Admission.

Roll the film… er… Roll the tape… er…  Roll the disc… Whatever.

Twenty-three MoMA 2011 Superstars, plus Tabby.

When the screen tests were being shot none of the other activities at the Factory were stopped or slowed. The Bolex was set up by Billy Name or Gerard Malanga (who filmed a number of the later sessions.) Over time, Malanga became increasingly alienated from Warhol, to the point where he claimed in his own book that the whole idea of the screen tests was his. No one else seems to agree, though there is no disputing his ongoing key role in the creation of the screen tests. Malanga, in an interview with Callie Angell, editor of the catalogue raisonné, says:

There were so many things happening at the…  that it really wasn’t a priority… because it wasn’t going to amount to much in terms of whether we were going to use this person or not.

Warhol never seemed to consider that their value was as actual casting tests for the studio’s movies. In fact, once restoration and archiving is finished by MoMA and the Warhol Museum, these four-minute seeming throwaways will be a singular record of two years in a seminal period of American culture—a time that was post Kennedy assassination, with its lingering sense of malaise, yet already deep in the free speech and free sex movements—but still pre-Vietnam war protest and its societal upheavals.

Billy Name photo of Ivy Nicholson screen test, Warhol with folded arms in center bg. Bolex camera on a tripod.
Sterling Morrison's Screen Test, Warhol in profile at the camera photo by Nat Finkelstein.

Our review of The Most Beautiful… DVD of the screen tests continues from last week with a dual clip of Nico (Christy Päffgen) and Freddy Herko, numbers 8 and 9 on the DVD. Nico, of course, was the German model/chanteuse that Warhol had met in Paris; he brought her to NYC to front the rock band The Velvet Underground. A measure of her star power in the Factory firmament is that she was given 11 screen tests, even more than the doomed Edie. Nico lived the life of a “Superstar.” She had affairs with Bob Dylan and Brian Jones and had a son with Alain Delon. The music track for her test is a cover of the song Dylan wrote for her, “I’ll Keep It With Mine.” Her studied Left Bank ennui, an apparent indifference to the whole process, along with the noir-esque keylight, makes this test unique in its sense of space and tone—so not American.

If it’s even possible, Freddy Herko’s test is more Euro tinged than Nico’s. It’s certainly more doom-laden than any of Sedgwick’s. Herko studied piano at Juilliard but became a dancer/choreographer for Judson Dance Theater. Fellow studio habitué, Mary Woronov, subject of her own test on the DVD, remembers him in her memoir, calling him one of the “mole people” who “were known to be tunneling towards some greater insanity that no one but this inner circle was aware of.” On October 27, 1964, the same year of his screen test, Herko, strung out on drugs in friend John Dodd’s fifth floor apartment, and with an audience in attendance, danced out Dodd’s apartment window to the strains of Mozart’s “Coronation Mass.” He was 29. His screen test reveals a distracted air. He repeatedly leaves frame, unable to accept its constraint, his cigarette dangling from his lower lip like Belmondo in Breathless, his eyes unseen because of the double rear raking lights, eyes already dead to us. Prophetic or merely haunted?

10. Warhol met Richard Rheem at a party in San Francisco and invited him to come be in his movies in New York. He did. He also moved in with Warhol and his mother and became her close friend. It’s not clear the degree of intimacy the two men shared though it was evident to others that Rheem loved Warhol. His four screen tests may have been made in close proximity as they all share an interesting technical glitch. The Bolex had a “slippage” or registration problem and there are occasional jumpy, blurred frames. Since Warhol is here also racking in and out of focus, zooming, and deliberately mis-framing, the registration problem just seems to be a fortuitously timed effect.

11. Ingrid “Superstar” van Scheven was, according to Warhol, “just an ordinarily nice-looking girl from Jersey with a big, wide bone structure posing as a glamour figure.” When things started to go off the cliff with the unreliable Edie, Ingrid was drafted to fill the void of the smiling blond. In her test, her fingers dance all over her face and she vamps to camera, having none of the poise (or vapidity) of her predecessor, Edie. But she has a sweetness that endeared her to Warhol and she starred in a number of his films. She has been called “Judy Holiday to Nico’s Veruska.”

12. Make way for the king of 60s downtown hip. Lou Reed made eleven screen tests for Warhol; many of them were intended to be projected during concerts of The Velvet Underground. In a number of the late tests Reed’s blend of nonchalance merges with a Warholian popism. In one, he eats a Hershey bar; in this one, he drinks from a clearly “billboarded” Coke. His dark hair, dark scarf, sunglasses, and the test’s dark background frame his face as prominently as the fore-grounded bottle with its stark white logo. The whole frame looks like a study in a Lola-esque, Jacques Demy, art-directed commercial. But Reed is so über-hip the Coke is nothing more than a prop for his erotic-tinged drinking. Those non-visible eyes can still burn right through you.

13. If you’ve not yet had enough oral play with Lou Reed, the companion screen test of “Baby” Jane Holzer that ends the DVD with its four-minute brushing of teeth should more than satisfy you. In her ten screen tests, Holzer’s hairdos are an ever-changing festival, thanks to her famous socialite hairdresser, Kenneth. Holzer’s photo in the October 1, 1964 issue of Vogue is seen as setting off a frenzy for long, cascading hair. In a December issue of New York magazine novelist/ social satirist Tom Wolfe named her “The Girl of the Year.” She ruled as Factory house beauty until the arrival of Edie. Warhol’s ten screen tests with her were the closest to actual screen tests that were shot. They clearly show changes and evolution in makeup, hair, and attitude.

The many faces of Jane Holzer—Six Screen Tests: hair by Kenneth.

Angell quotes from a Newsweek story about a “movie-watching party” that happened at Holzer’s apartment in November of 1964.

Jane’s real estate-broker husband watched impassively like a character in a Mailer story, while on the screen Baby Jane’s face in gigantic close-up chewed gum and brushed her teeth. A hypnotic pop tension built up, broken by Hollywood producer Sam Spiegel’s wife shouting, “We’re all turned on to you, baby.”

As the test becomes more intense, Holzer bends over to spit out some of the paste but returns with an even more open-mouthed, foamy brushing. The initial playful brushing slows down, her tongue emerges and the brush rotates around her open mouth. And finally, well, some have said it ends with a kind of “money shot.”

It’s a long, long way from Warhol’s E 47th St. Silver Factory of the mid 60s to the Anchorage Art Museum, almost within viewing distance of Wasilla, in the winter of 2010. But it is to this unlikely destination that the Warhol Museum sent a major Warhol retrospective. The galleries became a showcase for the wryly-fey artist’s drawings, silk-screens, paintings—and screen tests in a show titled “Manufactured,” a riff on the concept of the Factory. Even the museum’s elevator doors leading to the second floor exhibition were transformed. One can only imagine what the real men of Anchorage (or even Sarah Palin) must have thought—if they took the elevator up to see screen tests that are even more outré than the ones on the DVD

Elevator doors, Anchorage Art Museum
Elevator, Anchorage Art Museum

The exhibition’s metallic silver entry sign, with a Warhol silkscreen of the Apollo 13 moonwalk placed just inside, must have seemed harmless enough.

The rogue’s gallery of videos deep inside one of the interior galleries, however, had rapid pass through traffic, hardly anyone daring to be caught watching these four-minute video essays in narcissism—especially tests like Salvador Dali’s, here seen upside down, just as the waxed mustached necromancer/charlatan intended.

Opposite the entry of the Anchorage exhibition stood a Warholian photo booth, its compelling allure to make your own 3-image record utterly irresistible. Two copies: post one on the adjacent wall; take one home.

I decided to take an iPhone photo of the camera taking a photo of me.

John's photo booth screen test.

My photo of the booth‘s camera turned out even worse than the booth’s photo of me.  But as I exited the booth I heard the gentle whirr of fans, walked around the corner, and entered a windowed hallway, its doors closed at either end to keep the airflow constant.

In April 1966, the Leo Castelli Gallery presented a Warhol exhibition titled “Silver Clouds” that consisted entirely of helium and air filled, silvered plastic, pillow shaped “sculptures” that floated in equilibrium, buoyed by the gentle draft of the gallery’s air conditioning. The Silver Factory was filled with them for a time; the Anchorage Museum selected this narrow hallway for a symbolic re-creation of the Factory space. I managed to make a surreptitious iPhone video under the pretense of checking my email, knowing, of course, that it would loom high on your Netflix wish list.  Er…

At the end of March, a chrome statue of Andy by Rob Pruitt was unveiled outside Warhol’s Union Square Factory, where he had re-located from E. 47th St.. The irony with this chromed figure is that by the time of this second studio, Warhol’s silver phase was long past. The ten foot high statue will be in place for only six months—a kind of sculpture-time “four minutes.” Warhol is depicted carrying his signature Bloomies “Medium Brown Bag,” his ubiquitous Polaroid SX-70 hanging like a pendant from his neck.

I met Andy Warhol once; actually, we made eye contact. But I guess it wasn’t much different than meeting him. In 1983, I was having dinner alone on a quiet Upper East Side restaurant, Wood’s, on Madison Ave. at 63rd St. It had great vegetable dishes. Deeper in the eatery’s bowels I saw the seated back of a figure, also dining alone, who had the weirdest looking hair. I couldn’t imagine it was Warhol. Why would he, of all people, be dining alone? Ten minutes later, he got up to leave and passed my table. Like an idiot I blurted out, “Hi, Andy.” He slowed, as if he should recognize me, realized he didn’t, but nodded several times, and moved on. That’s the entirety of my Warhol experience—except when Carol and I saw the complete Chelsea Girls in 1966 in its LA premiere—on two battered 16mm B&H projectors in the living room of a bungalow on Highland that called itself the destination for NYC underground films.

Several weeks ago, I was at the Fahey-Klein Gallery on La Brea. David Fahey often rotates photographs in the back presentation room. Each visit offers a mini-show of unexpected images. That day, a Warholian serial image photo of Andy by Greg Gorman (a mural sized blow-up of a twelve frame contact sheet) was hanging, the glass reflecting on the back wall a photo of Andy and Edie by Steve Schapiro, an iconic Elliott Erwitt photo (Dog Legs)—and this poor blogger, peeking over Andy’s shoulder.

Andy and John, sort of… Andy by Greg Gorman.

Ah, to have been young in the 60s Silver Factory days…  Uh…  I was; I just don’t remember the 60s. Draw your own conclusions.

John's Note: Next week, the first of a three part look at Thom Andersen's cinematic homage to the "City of the Angels."

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