Portraits in Action: Warhol at MoMA

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Published on January 11th, 2011 | by L. Caldoran

Andy Warhol’s most infamous quote—yes, the one about everyone in the future being world-famous for 15 minutes—has gone beyond prophetic cliché. Over the years, it’s been hammered into the collective American consciousness with the force and depth of a lobotomist’s icepick.

YouTube is often known for making ordinary folks famous overnight, culling unintentional catchphrases from people’s real lives. “Reality” TV thrives on Machiavellian conniving and staged hissy fits, encouraging its participants to create and embody caricatures of themselves. On the other end of this continuum are fame voids like Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian, transformed into sources of bafflingly endless fascination simply for being young, sexually active, and born into money.

There’s also the popularity of Twitter, at best a feed for news-in-brief, all too often an outlet for pointless, abbreviated narcissism. The name alone evokes frivolity, reminiscent of terms like “all a-twitter” and “twiddling one’s thumbs,” not to mention twits, twerps, twats, twee, and tiddly-winks. Twitter promotes the illusion of having a direct connection to one’s favorite celebrities, posting bland promo missives when the account is controlled by a star’s handlers and potentially cringeworthy oversharing when it isn’t.

“Andy Warhol: Motion Pictures,” on display at MoMA until March 21, expresses the notion of fame through visual language rather than gossip and chatter, showing instead of telling. The show’s title is apt: Warhol’s silent, non-narrative portrait loops directly literalize the term “motion picture.”

The 1964 “Screen Test” depicting art collector Ethel Scull opens the show. A live 16mm projector has been plunked down openly in the sixth-floor lobby: its steady mechanical rattling is the only sound in the exhibit. An old-fashioned easel-mounted screen serves as the backdrop for Scull’s placid, blinking face. This introductory setup serves to contrast the film technology of Warhol’s day with that of the present, leading one to consider how methods of display can change perceptions and interpretations of a particular work. Art has never existed in a void.

Beyond this, a pair of glass doors silently part into an excerpt of “Sleep” (1963), depicting Warhol’s then-lover John Giorno doing just that. The enlarged film grain squirming over the image is more active than the subject’s face: but for the title, he could be perceived as dead.

“Sleep” is flanked by a pair of oral activities: “Eat” and “Blow Job” (both 1963). Pop artist Robert Indiana, the star of “Eat,” is lit starkly from one side, contemplating a mushroom while chewing in a slow, methodical fashion. His anachronistic wardrobe and oddly solemn expression bring to mind Depression-era documentary footage. “Eat” is briefly enlivened by a confused cat that hops onto Indiana’s shoulder—and rejects a bite of the proffered mushroom.

Despite the provocative title, “Blow Job” shows only the face of a young man on the receiving end of said act. The brick background and severe greyscale bring to mind the seediness of anonymous sex in back alleys. The harsh overhead lighting mimics glamour shots of ‘30s film actresses in casting a pallid moonglow over the curves of his cheekbones and lips; when his head dips forward, it’s completely obscured by shadow.

The following room is full of selected “Screen Tests” (1964-66) playing within wall-mounted frames, a manner of display impossible when they were first created. Warhol shot these pieces at the standard rate of 24 frames per second, then screened them at 16 fps, the frame rate used in silent films of old Hollywood. This reduced pace is just slow enough to distance the motions somewhat from those of the everyday world: consider how home-video footage, with its higher-than-average frame rate, tends to seem “too real,” its image quality somehow cheaper and more accessible.

The “Screen Tests” form a sort of time capsule. While the sharp 16mm contrast creates a sense of timelessness, the subjects’ hair and makeup often root the work squarely in the ‘60s. Some figures should be instantly recognizable to modern audiences, like Allen Ginsberg and a sad-eyed Nico, while others have become largely obscure outside the realm of art scholars and Factory devotees. As Warhol chose to use the lexicon of the film industry in naming these “Screen Tests,” perhaps they serve as auditions for the subjects’ continuing fame through posterity.

The choice of lighting in each piece can emphasize the subject’s character, whether intentionally or not. A young Lou Reed, with only half his face illuminated, fixes the camera with a cold, uneasy gaze. The prettily vacant stare of Edie Sedgwick, lips slightly parted, shares space with a black shadow looming beside her on the left.

Warhol’s video art undeniably works better in the context of a gallery show than a standard film screening. Not only does this format save the viewer’s attention span—expecting someone to devote a full work day to sitting in the dark and watching a static shot of the Empire State Building?—but it provides for interaction between the pieces. Baby Jane Holzer vigorously brushes her teeth opposite an animated Dennis Hopper babbling and shaking his head mournfully; meanwhile, Factory prettyboys Paul America and Gino Piserchio seem to cruise each other from across the room.

At the back of the exhibit is a small theatre outfitted with plush red seats: the viewer may come or go at his or her leisure while “Kiss” (1963-64) plays on a screen above. The combination of setting and subject matter evokes a more chaste version of stag reels from the ‘40s and ‘50s, plotless silent pornographic loops screened before small groups of men. Here, though, the tight, extreme close-ups on subjects’ faces keep the tone too intimate to be voyeuristic.

Gay and straight couples alternate onscreen: a kiss between a pair of shirtless young men, one greedily sinking his fingers into the other’s face, segues into that of a heterosexual couple, mirroring each other with sharp noses and swept-back blonde hair. The woman teases the man with a series of little pecks, laughing silently. Another two men: eventually the camera must adjust since one of them is often pushed out of frame by his companion. A moustachioed man leans down to kiss a prone woman with her eyes closed, seeming entranced. A dark-haired straight couple, in matching black turtlenecks against a black backdrop, resemble a pair of severed heads stiffly kissing in space.

Throughout the film, one wonders how, or if, the kissing couples knew each other, hunting for details in the visible clothing and background, in the kissing style itself. Are these two in a long-term, loving partnership or simply strangers instructed to make out on camera? In this way, “Kiss” can be interpreted as a queer statement: the portrayed action is the important aspect, not the varied genders of its participants.

These “Motion Pictures,” taken as a whole, compose a sort of anthropological study of the human face in the midst of instinctual actions. The “Screen Tests,” specifically, focus more on character than action: in line with more of Warhol’s work in other media, they posit fame as what results when an individual person loses control of the celebrity persona.

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About the Author

currently lives in Brooklyn. Her favorite films tend to involve historical settings, varying degrees of madness, and men doing terrible things.

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