A gigantic black-and-white face, neither totally still nor notably animated, stares down a long corridor. Replacing the usual high-end art in MOMA’s downstairs galleries is the aptly named Café/Etc., “Etc.” designating a multimedia sideshow of a dozen computers offering access to educational and conceptual sites, two lovingly re-created kinetoscopes sporting 30-second loops of an 1894 dance, and, most dramatically, dueling screens with video projections of European avant-garde classics from the ’20s played against selections from Warhol’s monumental film oeuvre.
Perched at an uncomfortable table sipping undersized, overpriced java from an “art cup,” one gets to watch two great periods of avant-garde cinema go head-to-head. The problem in this context with titles such as Fernand Léger’s Ballet Mécanique or Rene Clair’s Entr’acte (both 1924) is that their frenetic rhythms and disjunctions now feel overly familiar, the stuff of music video and Coke ads. Only the stark, spiraling shapes and pun-laden texts of Marcel Duchamp’s Anemic Cinema (1927) and Oskar Fischinger’s animated abstractions manage to keep from receding into moving wallpaper.
The Warhols, however, are a pause that genuinely refreshes. Curated by museum stalwart Mary Lea Bandy, they remain riveting, flat-out gorgeous, and remarkably unassimilated by mass culture. Assorted rolls of the serial Kiss (1964) pose tight shots of ’60s legends locked in breath-defying three-minute gropes. Eat (1963-64) has Robert Indiana in a rocking chair nibbling a mushroom for 40 minutes—Warhol mixed up the order of 100-foot rolls to create an illusion of endless consumption. But the real (super)star here is a group of 20 Screen Tests (1964-66) from a series of over 500 single-shot portraits of artists, club rats, and other demiluminaries. Made as a combination rite of passage and 19th-century carte de visite for Factory newcomers, they constitute Warhol’s most extensive film project, at once documentation of and vehicle for the creation of an indelible subculture. Lit in a host of sumptuous low-key effects against various backdrops, subjects were instructed to sit perfectly still for three minutes. Despite the limitations, they discover ingenious ways of interacting with the camera: James Rosenquist circles the frame on a rolling stool, Beverly Grant claws at her coiled black hair, Lucinda Childs mimes subtle shifts of expression as a fly surveys her bare shoulder. If MOMA really wanted to perform a public service, it would find a secluded nook, outfit it with a ratty couch, and project these astonishing little movies in perpetuity.