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

Screen Test #ST 349, Andy Warhol, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

The catalog essay from a Stockholm museum exhibition in 1968 featured this slogan attributed to Andy Warhol; “In the future everybody will be world famous for fifteen minutes.” The single word “world” was soon dropped; the quote then became an aphoristic pop mantra. A decade later, Warhol was so bored hearing it that he wryly morphed it to, “In fifteen minutes everybody will be famous.” Andy needn’t worry about his own fame. His face is one of the most recognized of the 20th century, equal to that of his most iconic subjects: Mao, Marilyn, Liz. The supreme irony is that his own screen test (the photo above) exists in only three 16mm film frames. According to archivists, the “original [is] not found in Collection.”

Warhol’s wry re-phrasing seems even more prophetic in today’s cyber-world of viral, rock music, YouTube postings, cell phone videos of high school hazings, security camera convenience store stabbings, and reality TV stars (often washed-up celebrities trying to extend their brief spotlight time), sliming the screen and each other. The relentless press for narcissistic media fame has even made an oft-bankrupted New York real estate mogul into a reality TV star and thence into a much-discussed and dissed, brief presidential candidate. Somehow, it is hard to imagine this is what the shy Mr. Warhol had in mind when he prophesized, “In the future, everybody will be famous for fifteen minutes.” If only… Unfortunately, some of the “stars” of bottom feeding, reality TV shows just won’t go away. And those that fade out are replaced as quickly as you can change a burned out light bulb.

Much of Warhol’s art addresses the intersection of celebrity and media. Though the iconic images of his art are the Campbell’s Tomato Soup can paintings that were first shown in 1962 at the legendary Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles, it is the silkscreen paintings and prints of movie stars, political figures and socialites that linger in our collective memory. But another, until recently, much-overlooked body of work has come into sharp focus, courtesy of archiving and restoration work done by the Museum of Modern Art and the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh. These are the so-called “screen tests.”

In early 1963, Warhol acquired a 16mm Bolex motion picture camera that accepted 100 foot daylight load spools of film; several of his early silent movies, including Sleep, Empire and Blow Job were shot with it, all the more amazing as some of the films run five hours and more. He soon got a 16mm Auricon single system (sound on film) camera (1200 foot magazines with 36 minutes running time at 24 fps.) He was now able to make his films with dialogue and scripted scenes, so to speak. The Bolex, which had been in service for the screen tests from the beginning, was now free to stay in the Silver Factory studio on E. 47th St..

Between early 1964 and 1966, Warhol made 472 of these screen tests featuring 189 people. Some subjects, like Andy himself, were one-offs. Others had multiple sittings. Most were shot on single-perf Kodak Tri-X reversal film, at 24 fps. However, they were meant to be projected at the silent film speed of 18 fps, which not only slows down the action but extends the running time to four minutes--- the four minutes of “fame” that serve as this essay’s title. Though shot and screened as single film portraits, Warhol soon combined them into several series, the first of which was The Thirteen Most beautiful Boys. A direct analog to this title was a NYPD poster that Warhol had seen, Thirteen Most Wanted Men. Also, at this time Warhol was using a photo self-portrait booth to create four pose photo strips of Factory visitors, an ephemeral moment of time, each photo made at several second intervals. The idea of the photo booth was also the principal inspiration for the screen tests, which at first were simply called “stillies.”

According to Callie Angell, author of the first volume of the Warhol films catalogue raisonné:

Warhol automatically provided himself with a set of simple rules to follow, rules similar to those required for passport photos: the camera should not move; the background should be as plain as possible; subjects must be well lit and centered on the frame; each poser should face forward, sit as still as possible, refrain from talking or smiling, and try not to blink.

Some of the earliest screen tests follow these guidelines but eventually the subjects began to use the occasion to express individual agendas. Some were playful; some deliberately enigmatic, some self-conscious. All of them were a record of the activity in and around the fabled Silver Factory.

By 1970, Warhol had ceased allowing exhibition of most of his films, including the screen tests. This lasted until his death in 1987, thus preserving the fragile film originals, which being on reversal stock, i.e. positive image, were often used as the unique projection print. First the Whitney, then MOMA, and eventually the Warhol Museum itself initiated a program to restore, protect, and archive all of the Warhol films. The first volume of the catalogue raisonné is devoted exclusively to the screen tests, as well as to their many compiled versions, which were seen by Warhol as a kind of stock library.

Catalogue Raisonne by Callie Angell, (Edie Sedgwick pictured).

In 2009, the Warhol Museum released a DVD of a baker’s dozen of the restored tests titled 13 Most Beautiful . . . Songs for Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests.— 13 Most Beautiful… Songs for Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests link

Dean Wareham and Britta Phillips were engaged to write new songs and provide covers of older ones deemed appropriate. Conveniently, the DVD gives you an easy option—without punching the mute button on your player—to listen to the tests silently, as intended… or at least, as they were filmed.

The fact is that when groups of the tests were assembled for public performance, especially as projections for live performances of the Warhol sponsored The Velvet Underground or the multi-media extravaganzas called the Exploding Plastic Inevitable, music was fore-grounded.

The trailer for the DVD gives a sense of the variety of poses and lighting in the tests, even given the putative mandate of “stillies”:

The rest of this essay and also continuing next week will be a look at these 13 screen tests. They are here in the same order as on the disc. A general note: The running time, even at 18fps, lasts four minutes because the tests are of the entire film roll. The Kodak 100ft. designation actually had an extra ten feet or so, as footage would be lost from daylight loading flares. Those head and tail flares are part of the aesthetic of the tests.

1. Ann Buchanan. It is appropriate to begin with her test. Warhol said hers was “something wonderful marvelous.” She valiantly tries to not blink, nor move, nor emote- to approximate on motion picture film the ideal “stillie.” The flat lighting and neutral background reflect the desired photo booth aesthetic. The discomfort of her frozen pose causes her eyes to tear up, bringing an almost Bressonian intensity to her four minutes. Buchanan was a transplanted Californian, part of the SF beat scene; she is said to have shared an apartment with Neal Cassady and Allen Ginsberg.

2. Paul America—Paul Johnson got his last name either because of the name of the Hotel America on W. 46th St. where he lived, or more likely, because of the comic book sculptural perfection of his face, evident even in the single source cross-lighting in his video. His supremely confident nonchalance is even enhanced by his gum chewing. His most famous work in the Warhol studio was as star of the 1965 feature, My Hustler.

3. Edie Sedgwick and Billy Name are paired in the next clip. Sedgwick is the most famous of all the figures to come out of the Warhol films; she established an iconic identity as the “poor little rich girl” from California, the pixie goddess who took NYC by storm and then fell victim to its decadence. Hers is the “cautionary fable” of the 60s era of experimentation and self-indulgence, dead at 28 from an overdose of barbiturates, and the subject of a bio feature film and a George Plimpton book.  Warhol said of her:

One person in the 60s fascinated me more than anybody I had ever known. And the fascination I experienced was probably very close to a certain kind of love.

Warhol’s obsession with Sedgwick is reflected in the fact that he made nine screen tests with her.

4. Billy (Linich) Name is very important in the hierarchy of Warhol “superstars,” though most often behind the scenes. He documented with stills the screen test sessions as well as many Factory events; he set up, maintained and operated the camera when Warhol was not present, though Warhol usually operated the camera himself as he felt his presence and engagement with the subject was crucial. It was Name who designed and created the silver paint and foil décor of the Factory after Warhol had seen the same scheme in Name’s apartment. Name was responsible for much of the lighting in Warhol’s features until 1969. He was also one of the few of the key group present on June 3, 1968 when Valerie Solanas shot Warhol. Name’s book of photos is, according to Warhol, “the only thing that ever came close” to documenting the look and ambiance of the Silver Factory.—All Tomorrows Parties: Billy Name’s Photographs of Andy Warhol’s Factory link

5. Susan Bottomly. Hers is the most enigmatic of the tests. A noted model when she was only 17, she was given the name “International Velvet” for her smooth, dark looks. Her video is a Whistler-esque symphony in black, dark eyeliner on false lashes, a forehead-obscuring helmet of hair. What is seen of her is no more than a quarter section of face with only half an eye. At the roll’s runout camera flares there is a tantalizing glimpse of her fuller face—and then it is gone.

6. Dennis Hopper. He is the only movie “star” that would be recognized by a general audience today, and his test is a real “screen test.” We can see Hopper trying out several postures and attitudes. It’s in his genes. But at a certain point, he begins to smile and nod as though taking direction from off camera. He even seems to become just a bit bored with the Beat-era posturing of the LA scene he came from—but perhaps this is just another role. Almost sensing the end of the film roll, he finally looks straight into the lens as though holding off on this moment of engagement as long as possible. The cross-lit key and raking light from the right that is often used in male action films is a clear reference to Hopper as an emerging Hollywood actor, even though his attraction to the Warhol studio was from his interest in Andy the Artist. Hopper had already begun his fabled art collection and Warhol’s work was included from the start, even in the LA Ferus Gallery show that was Warhol’s first one-man exhibition and from which Hopper bought a soup can painting.

7. Mary Woronov. She has a commanding presence and her no-nonsense test (with a faint smile as the camera runs out) anticipates the persona she would exhibit in many of her future film roles. She is one of the few Factory “Superstars” who went on to a full movie career, even though many of those roles were of a fiercely “empowered” character.

Warhol never intended the “screen test” to be tests in the way that Hollywood uses the terms. Most of the people he filmed were not interested in being movie actors; they were a cross section of the myriad people who came into the Factory: fellow artists such as Dali and Duchamp and Rosenquist; political and media celebrities; socialites, art collectors, writers and critics like Andrew Sarris and Susan Sontag; friends of friends, and sometimes, addicts who wandered in off the street--- in short a time capsule of the midtown Manhattan scene of the mid 60s. There is no other film record to equal it and the Warhol Museum’s ongoing restoration of the tests, when complete, will constitute 32 hours of riveting four-minute portraits.

Next week: The final six screen tests and a look inside the Silver Factory. (I want to acknowledge use of details from the DVD notes and from Angell’s catalogue. They have been essential aids.)



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