Andy Warhol’s output is so extensive that it’s pretty much impossible to keep any sort of handle on it all. Of course, that was kinda the point – among other things, Warhol pioneered the idea of art as a production line, an unaccountable volume of culture mass-produced like any other consumer good. But it also means that somewhere out there, there are endless reams of Warholian output sitting away from the public eye. And this is a shame.
Take, for example, Warhol’s screen tests. Between 1964 and 1966 he and Gerard Malanga shot 472 three- to four-minute films of people connected to the Factory and its extended family – actors, musicians, artists, poets, junkies, hangers on. The concept itself was simple and fascinating – stick the subject in front of the camera and see how they react. The films were framed and lit like photographs – they were, literally, moving portraits. The fact that Warhol shot them at 24 frames a second and played them back at 16 frames a second gave them a slow, dreamlike atmosphere, and the reactions of the subjects remain fascinating four decades later.
Happily, at least 13 of the films have been returned to the public eye via the attentions of NYC-based musicians Dean Wareham and Britta Phillips – aka Dean & Britta – who last year staged a show called 13 Most Beautiful – Songs for Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests. The duo wrote songs for 13 of the films, matching their music to the exact length of each piece of footage with largely spectacular results. The 13-song concept echoes Warhol’s habit of showing the tests in bunches of 13 – most beautiful boys, most beautiful girls, etc – depending on who he was showing them to.
State of the Art was lucky enough to catch a live performance of the show last year – they also recently reprised it at CMJ (on a day when they played three shows, including one reprising the music of Wareham’s first band, the marvellous Galaxie 500). It’s a rare privilege to see such a perfect synthesis of sound and vision; the songs echo the atmosphere of the footage beautifully, encompassing both original instrumental and vocal tracks along with a couple of covers dating from the screen test era.
The songs were recently released on CD, but State of the Art highly recommends the duo’s DVD, which contains all 13 screen tests with their accompanying music, along with a beautiful booklet – it’s released in conjunction with the Warhol museum and is apparently the first authorised release of any of this footage. If you’re interested, there’s more information at http://www.plexifilm.com/title.php?id=36.
In the meantime, here’s some of our favourites:
Anne Buchanan (music ‘Anne Buchanan Theme’):
Susan “International Velvet” Bottomly (music ‘International Velvet Theme’):
Paul America (music ‘Teenage Lightning and Lonely Highways’):