Museums

At MoMA, Andy Warhol’s Films Plumb the Erotics of Boredom

by Jillian Steinhauer on February 18, 2011

Still from Andy Warhol's “Empire” (1964) (image from moma.org)

Andy Warhol’s artwork tends to elicit strong reactions, whether it’s love in the form of poster-buying, hate in the form of getting angry at gallery installations or boredom, displayed by just not going to Warhol exhibitions at all. I happen to like Warhol’s art, although until recently, I had only ever seen his prints and paintings. An exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, called Andy Warhol: Motion Pictures, showed me a new side to an artist who often gets pigeonholed as a screenprinter of soup cans.

Despite Warhol’s dramatic pronouncement in May 1965 that he was retiring from painting to become a filmmaker, I suspect most of us don’t think of him as such. When we think of Warhol, we envision brightly colored, silkscreened canvases filled with Elvises, Marilyns, and Jackies, or maybe even darker images come to mind, boasting electric chairs or car crashes. But movies? Not quite.

That most art viewers aren’t aware of Warhol’s films may be just as well; the artist reneged on the idea of full-time filmmaking after recovering from his near-death experience being shot at the hands of Valerie Solanas. Warhol’s films aren’t exactly easy for all viewers to sit through, either: when people do talk about them, the word “boring” seems to come up a lot. A friend (and fellow arts journalist) recently took his wife to the MoMA exhibition, and later posted on his Facebook: “like thousands of art lovers before her, she almost immediately fell asleep.”

Still from Andy Warhol's “Sleep” (1963)

The truth is that some of the movies on view, especially the long ones — Empire (1964), which screens every other Friday, clocks in at 8 hours, 5 minutes — are boring. But that may be the point. Warhol wickedly stretched time by recording many of them at the standard speed for sound film (24 frames per second) and then playing them back at the speed of silent film (16 frames per second). This means that viewers must devote more time to watching them than Warhol himself did to making them. “Andy … had the patience never to be bored; or else he’d learned to plumb boredom’s erotics,” writes critic Wayne Koestenbaum in a 2001 critical biography. “Warhol’s ability to enjoy boredom is a secular artistic translation of saintly patience, of stoicism — the willingness to wait for the Messiah.”

If you haven’t spent substantial time with these silent, black-and-white films, it’s hard to convey just how precise those words feel. I scribbled a note with exactly the same sentiment while watching an 86-minute excerpt of Sleep (1963): “I feel like I’m waiting for the Messiah — a change that’ll never come.” There was something magnetic about standing there, transfixed, waiting for John Giorno (a poet and the film’s “protagonist,” if the word applies) to move—to roll over, or cough, or start, or shudder. I didn’t want to look away, even to take notes. And I became part of the artwork, as visitors moved around and past me, and looked from me to the screen and back. They wanted to know what I was seeing, because I seemed to be watching a different movie than they were. What’s so interesting about a guy sleeping?

Andy Warhol, “Kiss” (1963-64) (image from moma.org)

Of course our relationship to voyeurism, and to watching strangers live out the banality of every day, has changed enormously since Warhol’s time. Now we have reality TV and webcams and YouTube. “In a way,” MoMA curator Klaus Biesenbach writes in a book published to accompany the exhibition in its 2004 debut in Berlin, “the Factory functioned as the first reality TV commune, where Big Brother, who decided if the candidates remained or disappeared, was Warhol alone.” Yes, Warhol played the reality TV producer by engineering drama in his world, but he was also onto something bigger: his films explore the depths of the taken-for-granteds of our existence. Sleep, Eat, and Kiss (1963-64) feel like ethnographic studies that attempt to answer the question of what it actually means to perform these actions.

The exhibition also includes 13 “screen tests,” which are studies of a more composite sort: meditations on the human face, the nature of portraiture, and celebrity. Warhol made roughly 500 of these “Living Portrait Boxes,” as he called them, and MoMA has placed 12 of them in the second gallery (the thirteenth is actually the first work visitors see: a film of art collector Ethel Scull projected outside the entrance to the show). Screened large and in frames, they fill the space beautifully, coming together to create a silent yet lively portrait gallery. It is here that the title of the exhibition rings particularly true: these are pictures, portraits of Factory Superstars and other celebrities, like Susan Sontag, Allen Ginsberg, and Dennis Hopper, imbued with motion. Sometimes the subject has his or her way with the camera (Baby Jane Holzer gives the sexiest tooth-brushing performance I’ve ever seen) while other times he or she simply stares intently (Lou Reed has fantastic eyelashes). In either case, the result is riveting, drawing our attention to the slightest facial movements, blinks, swallows or arched eyebrows, and making us wonder whether we’re viewing these people’s relationships to the camera, Warhol, or both.

To accompany the exhibition, MoMA has launched a “create your own screen test” project online. Anyone can record and load their own video through Flickr, which MoMA then converts to black and white, slows down, and uploads to a dedicated website. As of this writing, 398 people have created videos, including one of a small child and another of — yes, really — a cat. Those two aside, the DIY screen tests are an interesting exercise in narcissism. Without an auteur, a Warhol on the other side of camera, they mostly look like video versions of Facebook or MySpace photos. In today’s world, filming oneself comes naturally. The challenge — one that Warhol left us and I think we have yet to fulfill — is devoting the time and energy to studying other people’s videos, or watching an hour or two of Sleep. For most us, looking in the mirror is pretty easy. Looking closely, carefully, intimately, at other people — now that’s hard.

Andy Warhol: Motion Pictures runs through March 21 at the Museum of Modern Art (11 west 53rd street)

Also, be sure to capture Hyperallergic editor, Hrag Vartanian, tweeting from a special daylong event at MoMA’s special screening of Empire (1964), which was organized by WNYC. Follow Hyperallergic on Twitter at twitter.com/hyperallergic.

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