By David Selden
Warhol’s Screen Tests show the artist’s gaze at its blankest. Auditioning factory stars and starlets in front of a locked frame in addition to whoever might drop by his notorious studio, these harshly lit studies function as portraits of the sitters. In the artist’s strategically vague or absent instruction of “no action”i, the subjects squirm or pout, fidget or stare blankly.
Shot between 1964 and 1966, the Screen Testsii captured Allen Ginsberg, Nico, Lou Reed, Salvador Dali, Dennis Hopper and Bob Dylan, to mention but a few of the countercultural celebrities, ingénues and slumming euro trash who found themselves trapped before the relentless eye of Andy’s camera. These 472 silent portraits, projected in slow motion iii, their four minute duration dictated by the length of a single reel of 16 mm film, capture the Factory at 231 East 47th street at its height.
Following his first solo pop show in New York at the Stable Gallery in 1962iv, the art world had sat up and
The brittle, amphetamine fuelled atmosphere of the Factoryvi provided the perfect crucible for Andy’s experiments with film. The petty cruelties and tensions between the “mole people” (a nickname coined by “pope” Ondine for those amongst the Factory’s menagerie that lived nocturnally) and the glitterati, chancers, and fantasists with which the artist surrounded himself, created cliques and factions amongst the self consciously ‘in’ crowd whose jealousies Warhol mined ruthlessly for material for his films.
Already a fixture in the downtown art scene, Warhol had encountered Jonas Mekas who had been showing experimental films at various venues. In 1962 Mekas founded the filmmakers co-op and it was with his encouragement that Warhol ventured into the medium. Among his earliest films, Sleep (1963) featured the poet John Giorno sleeping and lasted eight hours. According to Mekas, the premier at the Grammercy Arts Theater in 1964 was attended by nine people, two of which left after the first hourvii. Undeterred Warhol went on to complete the eight hour Empire (1964) a single static shot of the Empire State Building alleviated only by the brief reflections of Mekas and Warhol as they periodically changed the film canisterviii. The epic length of these static films were influenced both by Mekas’ structural film aesthetics and by the minimalism of La Monte Young’s Theatre of Eternal Music, amongst whose members were John Cale and Angus MacLise, The Velvet Underground’s original percussionist. Indeed Young was originally due to provide scores for Warhol’s early experiments with static cinema, Kiss, Eat, and Sleep all of which were completed in 1963. Although these plans were never realized, that same year Warhol, Young, and the conceptual artist Walter De Maria briefly formed a group, with lyrics provided by the painter Jasper Johnsix.
Another formative influence on Warhol’s films was the artist and filmmaker Jack Smith whose Flaming Creatures (1963)x introduced a note of high camp and hysterical pyschodrama. Smith provided a link between the austere aesthetics of the experimental film scene and the wild antics of Charles Ludlum’s Theatre of the Ridiculous. It was Smith that introduced Warhol to the drag scene and performers like Mario Montez and Jackie Curtiss. In turn a number of the Factory’s principle participants including Mary Woronov, Taylor Mead, Ondine and Ultra Violet performed in the plays that Ronald Tavel wrote for the theatre groupxi. Jack Smith appeared as himself in Andy Warhol Films Jack Smith Filming Normal Love (1963) and as Dracula in Warhol’s Batman Dracula (1964)xii, according to Warhol, it was Smith that gave him the idea of not turning off the camera and continuing to film the actors as they grew bored.
In the five years between 1963 and 1968, Warhol produced close to 650 films ranging from austere avantgarde minimalist cinéma vérité to self-consciously trashy sexplotation and horror parodiesxiii. Constantly stretching the possibilities of cinema, the footage was frequently repurposed from the double screen projection of Chelsea Girls (1966), described by Newsweek as “the illiad of the underground”xiv, to superimposed filmic backdrops for the Velvet Underground’s performance as part of the Exploding Plastic Inevitable at the Dom. Indeed, stills from the Screen Tests were also used to illustrate the poet Gerard Malanga’s collaboration with Warhol, Screen Tests/A diary (1967)xv.
This period of frantic activity came to an abrupt halt in 1968 when Valerie Solanas, the author of the S.C.U.M Manifesto, shot and seriously wounded the artist. After a slow and difficult recovery Warhol moved the Factory to a more corporate and professionalized footing, expelling most of his retinue and delegating his film making activities to Paul Morrissey. In 1970 Warhol withdrew his films of this period from distribution and it wasn’t until after his death in 1987 that they were publicly screened after extensive cataloging and restoration undertaken by MoMa and the Whitneyxvi.
i Life in Film: Runa Islam – Frieze Magazine 2007 http://www.frieze.com/issue/article/life_in_film_runa_islam/
vi Swimming Underground: My Years in the Warhol Factory Mary Woronov 2000