View of “Andy Warhol: Motion Pictures,” 2010. Ethel Scull, 1964. Photo: Jason Mandella.

View of “Andy Warhol: Motion Pictures,” 2010. Ethel Scull, 1964. Photo: Jason Mandella.

“Andy Warhol: Motion Pictures”

View of “Andy Warhol: Motion Pictures,” 2010. Ethel Scull, 1964. Photo: Jason Mandella.

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 “stillies”—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 [1964]), 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. The gleaming high-contrast black-and-white of the celluloid image is either reduced to the midrange of the gray scale or pushed so far that detail is completely lost in the darkest and brightest areas. (Oddly, the show’s one actual film—a celluloid amuse-bouche for the insipid video fare to follow?—is projected onto a portable screen set up in a corner of the brightly lit bookstore/escalator-landing space one must pass through to enter the exhibition, so that even Ethel Scull’s striking 16-mm image appears washed out.) The dialectic between the uncontrolled movement of the grain and the stillness that Warhol requested of his subjects in the Screen Tests is nowhere apparent. As a result, the “motion pictures,” although still striking in their compositions when one glimpses them at a distance across the galleries, lack the seductive visual qualities that would make one look at them for even a fraction of their duration. The mystery of presence, the investigation of which drives all of Warhol’s art, is completely absent from these moving images as they are exhibited. Instead, the show seems to confirm the worst that has been said of Warhol’s films—that they are trivial and amateurish.

“I am a digital person,” Biesenbach remarked at the press preview, continuing on to say that work on celluloid is the equivalent of an artist trying to communicate with him by telegraph. He doubled back to acknowledge that a few artists who interest him—Douglas Gordon and Tacita Dean—are fascinated by 16 mm, and then put the kibosh on that fascination by asserting, incorrectly, that 16-mm film stocks have been all but phased out of manufacture (Kodak has indeed eliminated certain stocks but has replaced them with new ones) and that 16-mm film projectors are almost impossible to find. (While it is true that your local electronics store no longer stocks such projectors, especially not the kind that can run at sixteen frames per second—the slow-motion speed that Warhol specified for his silent films—I have no doubt that if MoMA had wished to purchase two dozen variable-speed projectors, they could have been special-ordered.)

It is astonishing that a major museum devoted to the art of the modernist era would countenance an exhibition that so blithely disregards one of the signal concerns of modernist aesthetics: medium specificity (a concern that was, one hastens to add, absolutely central to Warhol’s early engagement with cinema). It also suggests a particular contempt for the medium of film. Or is this just the first step toward allowing a “digital person” to substitute digitized copies not only of films but of paintings, drawings, photographs, and (perhaps most saliently) performances? It would certainly save on insurance—and without a doubt, money was a factor here. So, too, perhaps, was laziness, intellectual and otherwise. (Several of the show’s relatively few films are dated incorrectly, for example—a troubling parallel to the lack of consideration regarding film art being shown as video.)

One also has to wonder, given that MoMA is responsible for the preservation of the Warhol films and has film masters of all the movies in this exhibition in its vaults, why new prints weren’t struck specifically for this show. (MoMA’s circulating library also has 16-mm prints of the Warhol Screen Tests and other of his silent films: I show them in my classes every year, and despite the wear and tear on them, they are ravishing.) Or, not to be so pure about it, why at least weren’t state-of-the-art digital copies—made directly from the film masters—used here? What, in fact, is being shown? When I asked for specifics beyond the wall cards’ “16 mm film transferred to video,” I was told that the only information the curatorial department could provide was that they “are playing the works from digital files, which were loaded onto digital media players.” MoMA then referred me to the source of those transfers, the Warhol Museum, and I discovered that the latter had relied on one-inch and Betacam SP tape ‘‘masters” made from the 16-mm films. These crude, outdated analog video formats were used as the intermediates for the digital files: In other words, garbage in, garbage out.

Increasingly, movies of every kind are preserved and exhibited in digital formats. For its recent Bruce Conner retrospective, New York’s Film Forum projected the films in DigiBeta. Because the 16 mm had been digitized with loving attention by Conner’s favored lab, the DigiBeta transfers looked unusually fine and rich, especially if you didn’t sit close to the screen. The Warhol films, however, because they are so static, present problems the Conners don’t. In terms of their materiality, Warhol’s films are deeply reflexive. The almost complete absence of camera movement and editing and the minimal movement of the subjects mean that the pulse of the films comes from the flicker of the film projector, which effectively lays down a beat—sixteen per second—that organizes the movement of the grain from frame to frame. When this movement is lost or mucked up, the films become dead things.

Not that Warhol was uninterested in death. In 2006, David Cronenberg curated a show of Warhol paintings and films at the Art Gallery of Ontario (“Andy Warhol/Supernova: Stars, Deaths and Disasters, 1962–1964”). Cronenberg transformed the show, which had originated at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, by juxtaposing the paintings with films, which he projected side by side with the silk screens on the gallery walls. The films were projected in video, but the images were smaller than in the MoMA show, and as a result their resolution was sharper and the pixels less evident. In any event, however compromised the film image, the ideas the show generated more than compensated. The reciprocity between the films and the paintings was evident as never before. In one particularly fruitful arrangement, one of the electric-chair paintings, Silver Disaster #6, 1963, was flanked by Blow Job on one side and Kiss on the other. The word SILENCE on a tiny sign in the upper right of the painting resonated with the silence of the films. Sex and death, death as punishment for pleasure, the orgasm as la petite mort, the dreadful narrative implicit in the painting (inevitably, the chair will be occupied and the person in it will die) and the obliteration that occurs at the end of each four-and-a-half-minute film roll when the image flares and turns to white light—there are far more interesting ideas here than simply film as portraiture.

What’s so infuriating about “Andy Warhol: Motion Pictures” is that just when Warhol scholarship has begun to acknowledge the brilliance of the films and their centrality within the artist’s oeuvre, the show renders them merely as art-star branding, as careless jokes.

Amy Taubin is a Contributing Editor of Film Comment and Sight & Sound.