PRINT April 2006


Andy Warhol

IN 1963, Andy Warhol bought a 16-mm Bolex movie camera. The films he shot with it and with the sound camera he acquired late in 1964 are, as Callie Angell writes in her introduction to Andy Warhol Screen Tests, “finally receiving long-overdue recognition as one of his greatest accomplishments.” Warhol ended his stint as a hands-on filmmaker in 1968 with Blue Movie, and, shortly thereafter, his films were de facto withdrawn from distribution, leaving available only those “Andy Warhol productions” directed by Paul Morrissey. A few years before the artist’s death in 1987, John G. Hanhardt, then film and video curator at the Whitney Museum of American Art, proposed that all of Warhol’s films be preserved and catalogued, and thus “The Andy Warhol Film Project” was born.

Because of Warhol’s extraordinary film productivity, Angell, adjunct curator of the Warhol Film Project at the Whitney and consultant to MoMA on the preservation of Warhol’s films, decided to divide the catalogue raisonné into two volumes. (When Angell began to prepare the catalogue in 1996, she systematically sorted through roughly three thousand reels of camera originals and prints—the originals alone adding up to a total running time of some 290 hours.) The first volume, Andy Warhol Screen Tests, is devoted to the 472 portraits Warhol recorded on 100-foot rolls of silent 16-mm film between 1964 and 1966. The second will deal with the rest of Warhol’s film oeuvre, from the early silents such as Sleep (1963) and Kiss (1963–64) to the “talkies” that he turned out, sometimes at the rate of one or more per week, for nearly four years. (Its publication is several years away.) Angell likens the Screen Tests to a “yearbook of the mid-1960s avant-garde” and also to “stem cells” of Warhol’s portraiture. Warhol asked visitors to his studio, from the famous (Duchamp being the magisterial presence) to his own “superstars” to “complete unknowns” (to quote Bob Dylan, one of the most illustrious subjects) to pose for their film portraits. The sitters (this writer among them) were instructed to look straight at the lens and to try not to move or blink. Warhol (or occasionally one of his assistants) adjusted the one or two lights and the framing (in most cases, the subject is framed in close-up, as in mug shots or passport photos—two more of Angell’s analogies), turned on the camera, and wandered away. The Screen Tests force both subject and viewer to confront what Angell poses as the primary concerns of Warhol’s art: stillness and duration. His rules replicated the torturous conditions of nineteenth-century portrait photography, making his sitters hold their pose for three excruciating minutes. (The Screen Tests can also be read as film versions of cartes de visite, produced by the host rather than the guest.) “The subjects’ emotional and physiological responses to this ordeal,” Angell writes, “are often the most riveting aspect of the Screen Tests. . . . The films’ silent projection speed further exaggerates these behaviors, revealing each involuntary tremor or flutter of an eyelid in clinical slow motion.” (Warhol specified that his silent films, including the Screen Tests, although shot at sound speed, be projected at silent speed, i.e., slowed by one-third, a stipulation that hasn’t always been respected in recent exhibitions.)

In its layout and text, Andy Warhol Screen Tests is an elegant version of the kind of yearbook to which Angell analogizes the collected Screen Tests themselves. Her decision to treat each Screen Test as a separate and more or less equivalent entry emphasizes the extended serial nature of Warhol’s project. Each entry consists of a digital scan of one film frame (or, in a few cases, of several frames) accompanied by a text that provides biographical information about the subject and details about the circumstances in which his/her Screen Test was shot and his/her connection to Warhol and the Factory scene. Thus the entries are in themselves portraits, albeit ones that focus precisely on what is excluded from the Screen Tests—narrativity. Angell is a wonderful writer with a rare ability to combine rigorous scholarship, an abundance of ideas, and empathetic, dryly witty observation in a direct style that’s a pleasure to read. (I wish only that her introductory essay were three times its length.)

No precedent exists for a film catalogue raisonné. There are, of course, monographs devoted to single films and filmographies that inventory the work of individual directors. By adding an element not found in either of these, namely a detailed description of each film as a material object—type of stock, condition, markings on the strip itself and on the box in which it was stored—Angell calls attention to Warhol’s films as hybrids existing between the art world (where such material descriptions are required of any catalogue raisonné) and the world of projected entertainments. The physical descriptions also create a parallel between this fascinating book and Warhol’s inspiration for the first group of Screen Tests, the NYPD-issued pamphlet Thirteen Most Wanted (also the source for Warhol’s infamous, short-lived mural at the 1964 World’s Fair). The police pamphlet provides not only a mug shot and biographical information for each criminal but also a description of distinguishing physical marks and characteristics. Andy Warhol Screen Tests transposes this accounting of the criminal body to the filmstrip as body—the evidence of an enterprise that operated outside the law.

Amy Taubin is a contributing editor of Film Comment and Sight and Sound.


Callie Angell, Andy Warhol Screen Tests: The Films of Andy Warhol Catalogue Raisonné, Vol. 1. New York: Abrams/Whitney Museum of American Art, 2006. 320 pages.