"Andy Warhol: Motion Pictures"

By Taubin, Amy | Artforum International, March 2011 | Go to article overview
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"Andy Warhol: Motion Pictures"

Taubin, Amy, Artforum International

ANDY WARHOL REMARKED of his movies that they were often better talked about than seen. If your only experience of the silent films he made between 1963 and 1966 is the exhibition "Andy Warhol: Motion Pictures," on view at the Museum of Modern Art through March 21, you very well might concur. Organized by Klaus Biesenbach, moma's chief curator at large and director of moma PS1, the show is a revision of the 2003 moma exhibition "Andy Warhol: Screen Tests" organized by Mary Lea Bandy, then chief curator of the Department of Film and Media. Bandy selected 28 of the 472 short black-and-white 16-mm films that Warhol made, between 1964 and 1966, of visitors to the Silver Factory (and ultimately dubbed "Screen Tests") and projected them digitally onto framed canvaslike surfaces or displayed them on framed video monitors hung side by side in a gallery. The point was simple: The Screen Tests belong to Warhol's favored art genre, portraiture, and therefore, despite not having the monetary value of the Jackies, the Elvises, or the Marilyns that Warhol painted in these same years or even that of the commissioned portraits of the 1970s, they were an intrinsic part of his oeuvre, aesthetically worthy of being shown within the main galleries of the museum rather than being relegated to an auditorium sidebar. When the exhibition reappeared, a year later, under its current name, at Kunst-Werke Berlin (followed by a half dozen additional venues around the world over the next six years), seven extended silent 16-mm portraits had been added (to an already augmented array of Screen Tests), including the five in the show's present incarnation--Sleep (1963; 5 hours 21 minutes), Eat (1964; 39 minutes), Blow Job (1964; 41 minutes), Kiss (1963-64; 54 minutes), and Empire (1964; 8 hours 5 minutes). By the time the tour rolled into New York, Biesenbach had reduced the number of Screen Tests to thirteen (retaining those of Jane Holzer, Dennis Hopper, Susan Sontag, Kyoko Kishida, Donyale Luna, and Edie Sedgwick, while adding "sullies"--as they were initially called at the Factory--of Allen Ginsberg, Lou Reed, and Nico, among others) and made further small changes to the lineup. It is in this form that the exhibition appears again at moma, a disgrace to an institution that has played a major role in the preservation of Warhol's films.


In 1995, in an essay for the inaugural conference of the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh (published by the museum and the British Film Institute in the collection Who Is Andy Warhol?), I described my first encounter, in 1963, with one of the artist's movies (then a work in progress):

  Unannounced and untitled, Andy Warhol's Kiss ... flickered onto the
  screen. ... Its black and white was as deep and impenetrable as
  archival nitrate, its motion slower than life. Framed in tight close
  up, two faces lunged at each other, mouth on mouth, sucking,
  nuzzling, merging, devouring. Some kisses were erotic, some comic,
  some verged on abstraction--less the oscillation of orifices than a
  play of light and shadow. Never in the history of the movies had the
  invitation to look but don't touch seemed quite so paradoxical. ...
  Like the best of his paintings ... Warhol's silent films ... existed
  in the tension between presence and absence, assertion and denial.
  Fetishistic in the extreme, they allowed the receptive viewer access
  to the fundamentals of cinematic pleasure. Their surfaces opened onto
  the depths of your psyche.

If visitors to "Andy Warhol: Motion Pictures" were to read this rapturous description, they would surely regard me as delusional. There are so many ill-advised aspects of this show that it's hard to know where to begin, but the primary problem is that the films, with one exception {Ethel Scull [19641), are being shown as crude video transfers, in which the grain of the original 16 mm wars with the video's pixels, resulting in dull, murky images, lacking definition, texture, and depth.

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