You’ve got three minutes

J. Hoberman

  • Andy Warhol Screen Tests: The Films of Andy Warhol Catalogue Raisonné: Vol. I by Callie Angell
    Abrams, 319 pp, £35.00, April 2006, ISBN 0 8109 5539 3

For two years, beginning in January 1964 and ending in late 1966, hundreds of individuals trooped through Andy Warhol’s midtown Manhattan studio (the vast, silver-painted loft known as the Factory), there to sit before a 16mm Bolex camera and have their portraits made on film.

The portraits, each of which used a single 100-foot roll of film, required just under three minutes to make and, as Warhol usually projected them at a slower speed, took slightly longer to watch. At first, these static motion pictures were known around the Factory as ‘stillies’. Eventually, they would be called Screen Tests. In the first instalment of a two-volume catalogue raisonné of Warhol’s cinema, Callie Angell, a film historian, estimates that there were 472 Screen Tests, some 60 per cent of which have been preserved.

I’d hesitate to call Warhol the most important American filmmaker of the 20th century – ‘media artist’ might make more sense – but he is certainly the one with the most philosophical resonance. Marginal though Warhol’s film production may have been, he occupies a central place in motion picture discourse. It’s impossible to consider practitioners of cinéma vérité like Frederick Wiseman or provocateurs like Lars von Trier, the entirety of home video, porn, surveillance, webcams and reality TV, or the nature of camera-induced celebrity, without reference to Warhol’s work. He has had a retroactive effect on film history as well: the Lumière brothers, D.W. Griffith and even Hitchcock may be understood in some sense as Warholian too.

Hardly a theoretician, Warhol reinvented film practice to suit himself. Unlike Hollywood screen tests, his were not made to audition personnel for prospective movies, although those subjects who sat most frequently for their portraits would become ‘superstars’: among them, the solemn chanteuse Nico, the sultry art student Mary Woronov and, most notably, the vivacious and tragic Edie Sedgwick. (The exception was Susan Sontag, intimidating subject of seven Screen Tests, but never cast in a Warhol feature.) A Screen Test was, literally, a test. Warhol documented his subjects simply having what a Hindu might call their being – that is, coping with the odd circumstance of total, indifferent scrutiny.

As cinema, the Screen Tests harked back to the first single-shot, minute-long actualités first made by the Lumière brothers in the mid-1890s. At the same time, they had an obvious relationship to Warhol’s iconic paintings and silk-screens (and even served as the basis for some); they also anticipated the multiple-image photographic portraits that he had begun making in public photo booths in 1963.

It is typical of Warhol’s way of working that the Screen Tests evolved out of another project. According to Angell, they were inspired by criminal mug shots Warhol found in a New York City Police Department brochure entitled The 13 Most Wanted: Warhol conceived a series of short portrait films to be called The 13 Most Beautiful Boys. (The same brochure formed the basis for the commissioned mural that would emblazon the exterior of the New York State Pavilion at the 1964 World’s Fair.) Later, Warhol added The 13 Most Beautiful Women. Neither 13 was a ‘finished’ film, but a rubric under which Warhol would from time to time exhibit selected Screen Tests.

The idea was already in the air. The neo-dadaist, John Cage-influenced Fluxus artists were already making similar perversely conceptual films. At least a year before Warhol began documenting faces for The 13 Most Beautiful Boys, the Icelandic political pop artist Erró, then based in New York, was at work on a series of brief close-ups in which a succession of European and American art luminaries – Warhol included – got 15 seconds to squint, scrunch and gape at the camera, waggling their tongues and baring their teeth.

Warhol’s Screen Test project is distinguished from its analogues not just by its epic scope but by the artist’s characteristic mix of the desultory and the rigorous. Production was casual, intermittent and largely spontaneous – often, the souvenir of a Factory visit. ‘Most of the time,’ Warhol’s studio assistant Gerard Malanga recalled, ‘it was never a pre-arranged thing.’ The methods used were, however, extremely consistent. As an exercise in serial photography, the Screen Tests were subject to particular rules. Each roll of black and white film was used to create a single-shot close-up of a particular individual (or, occasionally, a couple). Mounted on a tripod, the camera never moved (though it did turn upside down for one of Salvador Dalí’s two Screen Tests). The background was neutral, often a large white screen. The portraits were head shots, centred in the frame; the subjects were harshly lit, and told to face the camera and hold a pose.

Warhol’s direction was strictly behavioural and sublimely indifferent – which is to say that, beyond planting the subject with an injunction to sit still, there wasn’t any. Some subjects remember being left alone with the camera. Individually and as a whole, the Screen Tests demonstrated two essential elements of the Warhol aesthetic. The first was artless minimalism. The Screen Tests made the most out of the least (including Warhol’s effort). Push the button and the machine did the rest. Second was Warhol’s Zen-like acceptance that whatever occurred within the parameters of a particular situation was intrinsically interesting. In her Screen Tests as in the features she made with Warhol, Edie Sedgwick needs no script: she simply is.

It’s not as if nothing happened on screen. Injunctions against talking, smiling or blinking were not always obeyed. Subjects fidgeted and shifted position. A few, but only a very few, moved off-camera. Angell notes a propensity for oral bits of business: smoking, eating, talking, singing, even toothbrushing. ‘In light of these intentional difficulties,’ she writes, ‘the Screen Tests may be viewed as a series of allegorical documentaries about what it is like to sit for your portrait, with each poser trapped in the existential dilemma of performing as – while simultaneously being reduced to – his or her own image.’

Each Screen Test was an individual drama. Angell’s descriptions are extremely precise: the dancer Lucinda Childs, ‘framed in tight close-up, holds completely still and fixes the camera with a determined, leonine stare, frowning slightly’. Warhol’s first ‘superstar’, the socialite Baby Jane Holzer, by contrast, ‘seems relaxed and seductive, licking her teeth, tilting her head, furrowing her brow, smiling slightly, and at one point pulling back her hair to reveal a long and dazzling diamond earring hanging from her right ear’. The poet George Millaway played to the camera then against it: he ‘chews gum and produces a series of rapid and rather artificial grins directed at the camera and at off-screen observers, alternating these smiles with an unsmiling and rather blasé expression’.

There are an infinite number of ways to cope, or not, and all of them are revealing. In late 1964, Warhol pushed the Screen Test idea further, embarking on a six-month project which would involve making a daily 100-foot portrait of his lover Philip Fagan. What’s remarkable about the 96 extant rolls (the couple broke up mid-experiment) is how consistent Fagan’s glower is from first to last. Glum non-expression can be more eloquent than calculated performance. While adhering to the basic Screen Test rules, Dennis Hopper improvises an acting exercise. As described by Angell, ‘Hopper stares downward in despair, closes his eyes, then frowns grimly at the camera, puckering his brows and swallowing as if overcome with emotion. Toward the end of the roll, he smiles ironically, nods, shakes his head as if bitterly amused and sighs in resignation.’

Warhol usually operated the camera – there are no photographs of anyone else doing so – but he was assisted in the lighting and mise-en-scène by Malanga and other Factory technicians. A Screen Test might be shown once and never again, although some became Factory favourites. Others were incorporated in the various Most Beautiful presentations and another compilation, Fifty Fantastics and Fifty Personalities (which probably existed only as a concept, referred to but never known to have been assembled or shown). Most often, the Screen Tests were recycled as ‘background reels’, projected on the walls, ceiling and dancefloor during the rock-scored mixed-media performances known as ‘Andy Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable’. In the late 1960s, the Screen Tests inspired a book of poems by Malanga.

These days, projected video installations and movies are a gallery commonplace. But there was no attempt to sell prints or exhibit the Screen Tests as art until years after Warhol’s death. The Museum of Modern Art took the lead with an off-site exhibition in 2002. When MoMA reopened in 2004, nine Screen Tests were installed in a darkened gallery and shown wall-sized as part of the permanent collection. Originally, Warhol was not only the producer of the Screen Tests but their sole collector as well.

Who sat? Collectively, Warhol’s subjects constitute a particular milieu. The Screen Tests suggest a parodic reconfiguration of the German photographer August Sander’s monumental ‘People of the 20th Century’ in which, identified by their class and occupation, subjects assume a formal pose, staring into or just past the camera. Warhol, too, was interested in the self-presentation of representative types, though his work was not as encyclopedic as Sander’s. The subjects Warhol screen-tested could be classified as musicians, actors, dancers, poets, painters, art critics, curators, gallery owners, performance artists, fashion models, socialites and visiting celebrities.

The Screen Tests established an aristocracy of hipness. These were the cool kids, those who were able to make the scene (only a few subjects – Marcel Duchamp, Bob Dylan – could be considered stars, and Dylan is one of only very few to sit for his portrait wearing shades). At the same time, however, the camera’s fixed stare effectively democratised and reified celebrity in the sense epitomised by Warhol’s most famous koan: ‘In the future everyone will be famous . . . for 15 minutes.’ A fair number of Screen Test subjects are identified only by their first names and some just as ‘Boy’ or ‘Guy’. More than a few are hustlers or teeny-boppers who – for one reason or another – wandered into the Factory for an afternoon and afterwards disappeared, leaving only this photographic trace.

Some of the greatest of Warhol’s subjects were complete unknowns. Ann Buchanan, identified by Angell as ‘a young bohemian’, sat for two Screen Tests in 1964. In the first, she remains deadpan and unblinking; then, midway through, slowly sheds a tear. Subjects often welled up under the lights but Buchanan is unique for putting this physiological effect to dramatic use. Angell calls her performance, which Warhol once said was his favourite, ‘uncanny . . . like staring at a religious icon that has miraculously begun to weep’. Buchanan was included in The 13 Most Beautiful Women. Her second Screen Test, also shown as part of The 13 Most Beautiful Women, contained another remarkable act: midway through, Buchanan ever so slowly crossed her eyes. On the box, the evidently delighted Warhol scrawled ‘terrific’.

Angell’s massive scholarship is tinged with irony. She is only too aware of the absurdity of tracking down and fixing the facts behind each spontaneous, if not haphazard, Warholian moment. ‘Although every film in the series has been dated and/or numbered on the box,’ she writes of the Philip Fagan portraits, ‘there is some confusion in the sequence of numbers, since Warhol sometimes shot more than one film at a time, occasionally repeated numbers, or skipped a day of filming, and eventually . . . lost track of his numbering system altogether.’

Over the course of the book, Angell’s commentary weaves a web of correspondences; her project’s ostensibly narrow focus keeps opening windows on a wider world of countercultural ferment. Everything is a footnote (and there are footnotes to the footnotes). Ann Buchanan is cited, Angell scrupulously notes, in two Allen Ginsberg poems. Other Screen Test subjects toured with the Living Theatre, acted in the Playhouse of the Ridiculous, published underground comix, joined communes, created light shows, made movies with Antonioni, or simply disappeared into the night. The number of Aids deaths is notable.

In a sense, Angell uses Warhol’s portraits to orchestrate a social history of the mid-1960s New York art world in a way reminiscent of Vladimir Nabokov’s construction of a novel from the annotated poem in Pale Fire. Warhol’s haphazard enterprise develops its own logic. The careful reader will find an undercurrent of love affairs and a backbeat of parties, along with all manner of unexpected connections. Bibbe Hanson – ‘a very young teenager’ and ‘avant-garde wild child’ when she had her two Screen Tests in 1965 – turns out to be the daughter of Happenings artist Al Hansen and, some years later, the mother of the pop star Beck.

In addition to portraits, Andy Warhol Screen Tests is filled with pithy biographies. Some subjects are legendary underground figures: musicologist-filmmaker Harry Smith, performance artist and filmmaker Jack Smith, the married filmmakers Marie Mencken and Willard Maas (models for the couple in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?). Others – the garrulous, waspish speed freak who called himself Pope Ondine, for example, or Barbara Rubin, the teenage networker who introduced Warhol to Dylan and Dylan to Allen Ginsberg, while making the infamously explicit movie Christmas on Earth – cannot be classified.

Posing his subjects for three endless minutes before the camera and under the lights, Warhol made time material. Appropriating the resulting images (or rather, the images of these images) for her own scrupulous purpose, Angell makes us care who Warhol’s subjects were. Given the quality of the writing, the beauty of the reproductions, and – crucially – the difficulty of putting Warhol’s enterprise between pages, Andy Warhol Screen Tests is not simply a catalogue raisonné, it’s a work of art.