Whitehot Magazine

March 2011, Andy Warhol @ MoMA

Installation view of Andy Warhol: Motion Pictures at The Museum of Modern Art
Copyright 2010 The Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh, PA. Photo: Jason Mandella

Andy Warhol: Motion Pictures
The Museum of Modern Art
11 West 53 Street New York, NY 10019
December 19, 2010 through March 21, 2011

Patti Smith wrote in criticism of Andy Warhol, “I preferred an artist who transformed his time, not mirrored it,” but it is Warhol’s great ability to perfectly mirror his time that makes the latest showing of his work in MoMA’s exhibition Andy Warhol: Motion Pictures, so fascinating. Though it doesn’t seem possible that anything about Andy Warhol, from his work to his factory to his life’s story, could be novel or undiscovered, the time is right to revisit his work as it takes on a new relevance in light of current trends in artmaking and exhibiting. MoMA’s Warhol exhibition, opening in the final month of 2010, is a timely show that reinforces a trend recently seen in museums and galleries throughout the city where new artwork looks old, and old artwork feels new. While new artwork seems dedicated to mimicking past styles—MoMA’s exhibition New Photography is a perfect example of four photographers in their thirties and early forties showing us nothing new about photography—older artists and artworks seem to be popping up in numerous exhibitions that feel surprising fresh. Warhol’s films or Motion Pictures, on view in this exhibition, represent an aesthetic of simplicity that has been abandoned, for better or worse, by most artwork today. Much of the contemporary artwork shown today could best be described with a “re” in front of a noun or verb—repurposed, reinvented, reinterpreted, recycled—and the freshness we see in Warhol now is due to the contrast he provides us. In a society suffering from visual overload, which admittedly can be both a blessing and a curse, Warhol’s films are a welcome relief.

Andy Warhol. Screen Test: Edie Sedgwick (1965).
16mm film (black and white, silent). 4 min. at 16fps. Copyright 2010

Andy Warhol: Motion Pictures is a stripped down show of silent, black & white films from the 1960s that languidly move as the film’s subjects themselves twitch and blink. Minimally curated by MoMA’s chief curator at large Klaus Biesenbach, and installed in a cavernous space on the 6th floor of the museum, enough room is given to view the works, both up close and from a distance, without having to jockey for position around tourists and other viewers. The thoughtfulness of Biesenbach’s presentation reminds me of seeing Bruce Nauman’s biennial piece Days (2009) at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where the simplicity of the artwork and the installation of it together translated into a serene experience of thoughtful contemplation. This simplicity in presentation also seems to be making a welcome, if marginalized, comeback.

Though Andy Warhol is a figure around which the cult of celebrity that he was so fascinated by has all but consumed, his Motion Pictures have become portraits of a time and place, a movement in art, and an experiment in medium. The bulk of the films shown in the exhibition are Warhol’s Screen Tests, often referred to as “moving portraits.” Converted controversially from 16mm film into a digital format, Warhol’s Screen Tests are projected onto large, flat screens mounted in rows, with the films restarting every four minutes. The Screen Tests are subtle glimpses into the faces, lives, and attitudes of the youthful characters who gave life, and a great deal of physical beauty, to an art scene now long past. Though Warhol made almost 500 Screen Tests over a two-year period in the mid 1960s, depicting the various people who littered his factory and social circle, the selection shown in this exhibition depicts only the most famous and most lovely including Alan Ginsberg, Susan Sontag, Lou Reed, Dennis Hopper, and Edie Sedgwick. Strangely, though Motion Pictures is certainly a show about the celebrity of both Warhol and his stars, it’s not necessarily the celebrity aspect that makes these moving portraits so compelling. Instead, Warhol’s “superstars” embody the lifestyle of a decade many of them barely lived to see the end of, and it’s the more personal and universal aspects of the Screen Tests that holds our interest.

Andy Warhol. Screen Test: Lou Reed (1966).
16mm film (black and white, silent). 4 min. at 16fps @ 2010

The male subjects shown in the Screen Tests, like Gino Piserchio (1965), with his sweeping bangs and chiseled face, and Paul America (1965), who aptly adopted the name “America,” looking like all-American athlete, represent ideals of handsome masculinity. Watching Piserchio’s steadfast and almost sinister gaze, he has the subtle oddity of a Crispin Glover hidden within his face. Of all the men, he might be the most comfortable being watched and filmed, as the other male subjects fidget uncomfortably before the camera. As viewers, we feel their embarrassment but enjoy watching them anyway. Lou Reed (1966) and Dennis Hopper (1964), lone figures who have survived into old age amongst a group of “die youngs,” are youthful versions of celebrities we have come to know well. Reed, tightly cropped within the camera frame, has an unflinching, serious gaze, while Hopper can’t sit still, and wastes his four minutes looking cocky, shaking his head, smiling, and doing anything he can to forget a camera is filming his every expression. I found myself watching these films in their entirety without intentionally trying to do so, as something in their silent faces is fascinating to observe. It’s their expressions of discomfort and awkwardness, their self-conscious darting glances, and their shy smiles that are so familiar and yet expressive to watch. While their individuality seems to seep from their faces with every twitch, they are nonetheless like many faces we have watched before. 

The women in the Screen Tests love to be looked at, and are familiar enough with the male gaze to be perfectly at home within the gaze of the camera. Their actual appearance, more than their performative antics, tells us what they represented. Katha Dees (1964) and Edie Sedgwick (1965), presented next to each other are fascinating to compare, as each represents a different ideal of an era’s notion of beauty. Dees, classic and elegant like Grace Kelly, stares at us with her perfectly symmetrical face, her lips slightly parted and her eyes blinking in sexy succession. A forgotten model, she was, unbelievably, an identical triplet, and her Screen Test radiates a seductive sexuality. Sedgwick, by contrast, reminds us of Twiggy, and that childish, almost boyish aesthetic of beauty that was then so shocking and new. Edie lacks elegance, but exudes an innocent sincerity with her huge eyes, button nose, and short hair. Jane Holzer (1964) and Donyale Luna (1964), engage the camera in their portraits with playfulness and humor. Though all of these women were sexy by default, their Screen Tests are thankfully more than typical portraits of beautiful women seducing the camera. “Baby Jane” is brushing her teeth, an oral act that forces us to become entranced by her open mouth and moving tongue. As the Screen Test progresses, however, and toothpaste begins to foam and gush, her spit and spittle becomes mundane and gross. Donyale Luna treats the camera like a mirror, primping and fussing throughout. She is ethnic and stunning, twitching her smile this way and that, turning and cocking her head as though to show us the most perfect angle of her face. She reminded me of ballet dancers, standing in front of mirrors day after day, obsessing over their appearance. Hidden within the beauty seen in these Screen Tests, of men and woman alike, lingers a quiet a comment about the vacuous nature of it.

Andy Warhol. Screen Test: Baby Jane Holzer (1964).
16mm film (black and white, silent). 4 min. at 16fps. Copyright 2010

Of the longer films shown in the first and last rooms of the Motion Pictures exhibition, only a few are worth devoting significant viewing time to watch. Warhol’s mistake with this silent, colorless medium, was to make some films too much like photographs. Of the five longer films, Empire (1964), an 8 hour and 5 minute film of the static Empire State Building, and Sleep (1963), a 5 hour and 20 minute film of John Giorno sleeping, are both examples of Warhol’s “anit-film” aesthetic that make them essentially unwatchable. The other three films, however, give us slightly more story than the Screen Tests, more activity, and a longer duration in which to watch it unfold. Warhol’s film Eat (1963), shows a somewhat androgynous man eating an ambiguous piece of fruit. He’s pensive beneath a fedora, as he chews and swallows, blinks, and takes another bite. In this film the mundane activity of eating in slow motion becomes a story of gesture, character, and habit. Watching him eat is like watching yourself in the mirror talking on the phone: it reveals a whole set of expressions you didn’t even realize you made. Blow Job (1963) features the handsome face of a man that we assume, though never know for certain, is being pleasured by an unknown someone. In this film Warhol takes a sexual situation, one that would be voyeuristic to watch, and turns it into a character study rather than pornography. What does pleasure look like? Set against a concrete wall, the actor’s head rolls back and forth slowly, his mouth moving slightly, lips parting every so often. His face is serene, and covered by an expression of passive pleasure. It’s amusing how viewers react to the film when they read the title: they gasp and giggle as an ambiguous film turns suddenly into something taboo. Kiss (1963-64), is a 54 minute film that captures different couples, some of them men and women, men and men, and women and women, kissing and embracing. Like Blow Job and Holzer’s tooth-brushing Screen Test, what could be a very sexualized film is shot to reveal the style of each couple’s way of kissing. Unlike what we see in Hollywood films, sex and foreplay are not clean and beautiful, they are messy and wet, arousing and erotic to the people engaged, but not always to those of us watching. Kiss is about kissing, what it looks like, how we do it, how each individual’s way of kissing is unique and specific, like an erotic fingerprint.

It is the aesthetic we see in the films shown in Andy Warhol: Motion Pictures, a shift away from chaotic clutter, that imbues Warhol’s work with an inexplicable freshness. I can’t help but wonder if the sudden resurgence of 16mm film is in part a reaction to the oversaturated realism of films today. Larry Clark’s film Tulsa (1968), also shot in black & white, silent 16mm, was reshown at the beginning of the year at the Luhring Augustine gallery in Chelsea. Tusla is a 64-minute portrait of daily drug abuse, filmed in an unflinching style that we rarely see reproduced in films today. Should we feel a sense of anxiety that older artworks suddenly feel so new to us, or is this simply like the trends of fashion, where past decades are adopted by a younger generation and embraced it as though the trend had never been worn by anyone else? The danger of this, however, lies in the relevance of the artwork. It seems deeply problematic that older artwork, made in a different time and for a different society, feels more relevant to us than works made now. Could new artists simply be “transcending” our own time? Possibly, but my fear is that they are mirroring times past and ways of thinking that are dead, using styles they don’t sincerely understand. Perhaps this is why so much art today fails to reach, much less touch, its audience. A perfect exhibition for our modern moment, Warhol’s languidly moving Motion Pictures allow us to connect in quiet silence with the famous, the forgotten, the real, and the dead.

Andy Warhol. Kiss (1963-64).
16mm film (black and white, silent). 54 min. at 16fps. @ 2010

Alissa Guzman

Alissa Guzman is a culture critic living and working in New York City.

view all articles from this author