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THE SURVIVING 472 silent Screen Tests that Andy Warhol shot on black-and-white 16-mm film between 1964 and 1966 constitute the most subversive investigation of portrait-making in the history of visual art. The subjects were visitors to and regulars at Warhol’s Silver Factory in Midtown Manhattan. Upon agreeing to be filmed, each one was instructed to sit in front of the camera, look straight into the lens, and try not to move or even blink. Warhol adjusted the tripod and the one or (sometimes) two lights, turned on the battery-operated Bolex, and typically walked away, leaving the subject to his or her own devices for just under three minutes (i.e., the time it took to expose a single roll of 16-mm film). The process was only minimally collaborative. Warhol abdicated all decisions about how to fill the time and did nothing to enforce the no-movement rule, which was often broken. The situation concentrates the mind and body of both the person being filmed and the viewer who, decades later, watches what Callie Angell, in her 2006 introduction to the first volume of the Warhol films’ catalogue raisonné, describes as the “stem cells of Warhol’s portraiture.”

Among the forty-three films in the retrospective “Andy Warhol—From A to B and Back Again,” opening November 12th at the Whitney Museum of American Art, are twelve Screen Tests. All are projected on film and at the correct speed, which, for the silent films, is sixteen or eighteen frames per second—roughly one-third slower than “real” life. Working in a time-based medium, Warhol first chose to make his mark with stillness and duration, through which the people who came before his camera would be denatured by the medium itself. The subjects’ stillness and the slow-motion projection place these film-portraits midway on a continuum between painting and photography and, on the other end, documentary movies. Warhol’s strategy also shifts our attention from the seemingly frozen figure at the center of the frame to the exuberant, chaotic movement of the film grain itself and the pulse that organizes it, the regular strobing of the projector’s light: the basic factors that make a movie a movie.   

Citing the influence of Jack Smith’s films and performances on his Ontological-Hysteric Theater, Richard Foreman wrote: “To watch Jack Smith perform was to watch human behavior turn into granular stasis, in which every moment of being seemed, somehow, to contain the seeds of unthinkable possibility” (italics mine). From this description and from my observations of Smith’s performances—in which pauses in dialogue and action could extend for as long as ten minutes while Smith appeared to oscillate between an impulse to cry out against the existential horror that engulfed him and his doubts about the impulse itself, to say nothing of the form its expression should take—Smith should have made an ideal subject for a Warhol Screen Test.

But Smith’s mission was to fail no matter who set the rules, to be no one’s ideal subject, and his only Screen Test is a study in artful anti-brinksmanship. By the time Smith sat for Warhol, the two had already appeared in small roles in each other’s films, and Warhol had openly acknowledged Smith’s influence on his own work. Smith’s Screen Test was made in 1964, the same year he starred in what was to be Warhol’s first epic, Batman Dracula. But the seven hours of film that Warhol shot were left unedited and will probably never be seen except in the kind of degraded digital-copy job that is the Andy Warhol Museum’s specialty. And the never-to-be-screened fantastical characterizations revealed in still images of Smith in Batman Dracula are not present in his Screen Test.

Instead, Smith seems to have decided to treat the opportunity as if he were auditioning for the romantic lead in a 1930s Hollywood remake of a Mexican melodrama. Underexposed, the image lacks the high-contrast blacks and whites that make most of the Screen Tests immediately arresting. Perhaps Warhol was trying to get the better of Smith in a mutual game of self-sabotage. Smith is positioned slightly off-center, with a single unseen light placed overhead and to one side. His neatly combed hair gleams; his dark mustache and short beard are similarly well-groomed. To his left is a pole on which the light is supported, and from which dangles an electrical cable—a behind-the-scenes reveal more characteristic of Smith’s work than of Warhol’s. At first, Smith’s demeanor is surprisingly serious, and for a moment you might think he’s going to dutifully follow Warhol’s direction. But, irrepressibly, he starts to shift his gaze from one side to the other. He looks down, then adjusts his head to once again peer into the lens. If this is a performance—and of course it is—it’s the most subdued we’ve ever seen from Smith, manic purveyor of such volatile productions as Flaming Creatures (1963) and Normal Love (1963–65). In the final minute, his mouth widens into a twisted, tight-lipped smile. His facial muscles clench as if he needed to defend himself from an unseen predator—Warhol’s camera perhaps—about to vampirize his soul. But the moment comes to nothing. If anything, as the whiteout that ends all Warhol films end begins to obliterate his image, Smith seems more at peace than I ever saw him on-screen or onstage. At least in his Screen Test he had a good end.

Amy Taubin is a contributing editor of Artforum.