Between 1964 and 1966, during Andy Warhol’s frenetic early filmmaking phase, he produced almost 500 brief motion-picture portraits, or screen tests. Shot on silent black-and-white 16mm, each captures the face of a single Factory visitor as she or he is asked to sit still for the roll’s three-minute run—certainly not easy in those amphetamine-addled days. Since 1997, MOMA has restored about half of these mini-movies; 28 will be displayed in a gallery-style exhibit.
These shouldn’t be confused with feature-length soundies Screen Test #1 and Screen Test #2, or similar, longer portraits, like Henry Geldzahler or Taylor Mead’s Ass. Projected at Warhol’s desired silent-film 16 fps (slower than the standard 24), each runs about four minutes—the length of a perfect pop song. Indeed, superstar “Baby” Jane Holzer, captured in three separate screen tests on view, recalls that Warhol played Dionne Warwick records while showing them, and their formal precision and melancholy aura aren’t far from Bacharach’s idiom. Dennis Hopper and Gerard Malanga brood under noir lighting; coquettish Holzer chews gum in slo-mo; impatient Harry Fainlight exits, leaving a bare wall. Only Ann Buchanan achieves Warhol’s immobile ideal, with a single tear creeping from her unblinking left eye.
Originally, like other Warhol films, the screen tests appeared theatrically. For a time, they ran weekly at Film-maker’s Co-op shows as an ongoing series titled “Andy Warhol Serial.” Some were collected into longer works, such as The Thirteen Most Beautiful Women (1964) and The Thirteen Most Beautiful Boys (1964). For MOMA’s show, they have been retooled into modern-day video installations: DVD transfers looped on flat-screen monitors set into the walls, each surrounded by a black wooden picture frame. The coy mounting shifts them away from Warhol’s film oeuvre and closer to his screen-printed serial portraits, which themselves resemble filmstrips.
Is this the cinematic equivalent of framing color Xeroxes of Warhol’s paintings? To some, it will seem so. While cineastes may pooh-pooh exhibiting DVD bump-downs—noting how their grainy emulsion becomes visibly degraded into blotchy, blocky pixels, and grousing about the generally short shrift celluloid receives in the art world—consider that Warhol would have loved this new translation. An aficionado of the tape recorder, Polaroid, and portapak, he was always eager to embrace the latest form of technological reproduction. Furthermore, he contemplated his own lower-resolution exhibition strategy. Historian Callie Angel, who oversees the restoration of Warhol’s films, notes that he envisioned someday creating 8mm reduction prints of the screen tests, and showing them inside small back-projection boxes, like sculptural objects reminiscent of miniature portable TVs. Certainly, the question concerning technology is not an easy one, though at MOMA’s press preview, one attendee simply asked, “Where are the projectors?”