An Analysis of the Effects of Contextual Representation: Andy Warhol’s “Screen Tests” in an Exhibition and in Book Form

Essay, 2011

12 Pages, Grade: 62


An Analysis of the Effects of Contextual Representation: Andy Warhol’s “Screen Tests” in an Exhibition and in Book Form.

In 1964 Pop artist Andy Warhol started to take his “Screen Tests”, short portrait films of his colleagues and friends who visited him in his famous studio, the “Factory” in New York. Today, more than forty years after the last test was taken, fascination with the films still motivates people to look at them in exhibitions and books. They still catch us with their complex character as time witnesses and social documents, combined with a strong effect as extraordinarily personal pieces of art.

In the following essay, I will illustrate in which way these complex films and their meanings are shaped in different contexts of representation: installed in an exhibition (Fig. 1) and printed in book form (Fig. 2). Scott Rudd (2010) Angell, C., Andy Warhol Screen Tests - The Films of Andy Warhol Catalogue Raisonné (2011)

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Fig. 1

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Fig. 2

At first when dealing with this question, it needs to be clear what the Screen Tests are:

The films are not screen tests in the conventional sense of the word. The term usually means short test films taken of actors on castings to decide if they get a part in a film. In Warhol’s Screen Tests, the sitter was instructed to look straight into the camera, without movement or emoting, and if possible even without blinking over the three minutes of recording time. People were recorded in close- ups, deprived of the chance to hide even the smallest movement of their faces (Angell, 2006).

The “Stillies”, as Warhol called them in the beginning, were often produced spontaneously and with casual rapidity. The conceptual sophistication of these films as a whole makes this long- term project a central piece of Warhol’s work as a portrait artist in the medium of both film and painting. They can be seen as the “stem cells of Warhol’s portraiture” (Angell, 2006, p.12): Giving us an overview over the world of fame and glamour in the 1960s scene, with almost exclusively well- known sitters, they deal with the same objects - celebrities - as Warhol’s paintings do.

Like all of Warhol’s early films, they are taken on his first film camera “Bolex” in black- andwhite and on silent speed (16 instead of 24 frames per second). It is especially the combination of the slow silent speed, the almost- stillness of the obedient sitters and the unusual lack of sound in the films, which makes these portraits “hybrid art images” (Sokolowski, 2004, p. 9), on the borderline between still photography and the moving image. By using the entirety of his 472 Screen Tests as a portrait film archive, he constructed the compilations “The Thirteen Most Beautiful Women”, “The Thirteen Most Beautiful Boys”, “Six Months” and “Fifty Fantastics and Fifty Personalities”.

A great chance to see the Screen Tests was in December 2010 when the Museum of Modern Art, New York, hosted the show “Andy Warhol: Motion Pictures” (Fig. 3): After extensive archiving and restoring, the museum showed a selection of Warhol’s revolutionary non- narrative black- and- white silent films, like “Kiss” (1963) and “Sleep” (1963). However, the majority of the wall space in the exhibition was given to the Screen Tests (Fig. 4).

Jason Mandella (2010) Jason Mandella (2010)

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Fig. 3

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Fig. 4

Entering the main room of the exhibition, The Museum of Modern Art shows us thirteen “Stillies” of only the most famous sitters. We face the “living portraits” of, for instance, the young critical writer Susan Sontag (1964), actor Dennis Hopper (1964), Warhol’s Superstar and 1960s icon Edie Sedgwick (1965), Velvet Underground members Lou Reed (1966) and Nico (1966), high society member and model “Baby” Jane Holzer (brushing her teeth) (1964) and poet Allan Ginsberg (1966) (Johnson, 2010). The number of Screen Tests refers to Warhol’s series “The Thirteen Most Beautiful Boys” and “The Thirteen Most Beautiful Women” which are compilations under which Screen Tests were published and screened.

The portraits in the show are giant, approximately 1.5m x 2.0m (they vary slightly in size), and are put high up on the wall. All screens are facing towards the middle of the room, where the viewer finds flat couches provided for watching the “Stillies” from a distance (not shown in the picture).

With this display, the show sets its focus on illustrating the work’s meaning as psychological study: Sitters reacted very differently to being scrutinised over the length of three minutes, without any instructions and even in close- up; in the Screen Tests in the show, we are presented a whole range of reactions. Donyale Luna, for instance, used the camera lens as a mirror to groom herself up and practiced her poses - things she was used to doing in front of the camera as a model (Fig. 5). In doing so, she makes herself busy when being observed, for the lack of given instructions. Edie Sedgwick, in comparison, faced the camera vulnerably, and at the same time disarmingly personally and directly; she appears childlike and loses her “it- girl” attitude when wearing unusually little make- up (Fig. 6).

Everybody being filmed by Andy Warhol at that time, when he was already an internationally known artist, was aware that the footage would possibly be shown to an audience. Therefore it was not only Warhol staring at them - it was the public. Both groups of famous sitters, the ones being known for being beautiful, like Luna and Sedgwick, or for being an intellectual, like Sontag or Ginsberg, were set under extreme pressure when filmed without the usual safety given by instructions or another purpose for the recording, apart from just their mere selves. They were deprived of a clear role to play and left alone in front of the lens. Aware of being scrutinised close up, they took the challenge of entertaining the lens by their bare presence, still intending to look professional and used to the situation in the spot light as celebrities.

Billy Name (1965) The Andy Warhol Museum

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Fig. 5

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Fig. 6

Warhol concentrated on tiny movements of the face during the recordings. His Bolex registered every minute sign of emotional reaction to this uncomfortable situation. “As the collection of Screen Tests grew, these provoked responses gradually became the overt purpose or content of the films, superseding the original goal and achievement of the static image. Some later Screen Tests seem to have been deliberately staged to make things as difficult as possible for the subjects, with bright lights placed close to their faces and shining right into their eyes”(Angell, 2006, p. 14). Considering this obvious interest in psychological reactions, Warhol biographer Koestenbaum even claims that Andy “provoked [his] victim into a visible breakdown” (2004, p.25).

Considering this actual situation, when a Screen Test was taken, the work becomes the record of a tense game of powers between Andy and his model in that moment.

Interesting is now the way, the film portraits are presented in the Museum of Modern Art: There is a situation of mutual contemplating between portraits and viewer created in the museum’s space. On the one hand, viewers take on the place of Andy and his Bolex camera, out of the spotlight and safe in the shadow, with the lens as a shared means of control. Opposite us, in the centre of our and the camera’s attention, we find the celebrities. On the other hand, the installation makes up for the weak position of the sitters by putting the viewer in a similarly awkward situation; this can be read off three aspects of the installation: the giant size of the screens, their position unusually high up on the wall, and the arrangement in the room circling the viewer from all sides.

The fact that the screens are not hung at the usual eye level shows the intention to be viewed from a greater distance. We have to take some steps back, taking on a viewing distance of approximately three metres from the screens. In doing so, we provide the “person on the wall” with an equivalent of his/ her safety zone. Usually we do not take such a great distance from portraits we encounter in museums - we rather look at the features of the faces from as close as possible. Differently, our position as viewer here gets weaker as we are forced to treat the moving portrait with a certain respect when we hold the distance. We loose the ability to examine the famous faces in their closest detail because getting closer we see nothing but pixels. The implied viewing distance is even further than three metres: in the middle of the room are flat couches provided for us. Sitting down, we find ourselves in the centre of the attention of the thirteen large faces - they stare at us from all sides of the room. Apart from the fact that we are forced to take distance, the sitters are looking down on us from their eyelevel difference of about 80cm (assuming an eyelevel of 1.7m of the viewer). This also gives us the feeling of being small and contributes to the weakening of the spectator’s strong position on Warhol’s and the camera’s side.

Being looked at from high up, out of large scale eyes in a large scale face, gives the viewer a sense of inferiority (Fig. 7); being in the middle of these thirteen faces makes the spectator feel supervised and equally controlled like the sitters in their test situation (Fig. 8).

Scott Rudd (2010) Billy Name (1965)

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Fig. 7

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Fig. 8


Excerpt out of 12 pages


An Analysis of the Effects of Contextual Representation: Andy Warhol’s “Screen Tests” in an Exhibition and in Book Form
University of Westminster  (Media, Arts and Design)
Contemporary Photographic Practices
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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1786 KB
analysis, effects, contextual, representation, andy, warhol’s, screen, tests”, exhibition, book, form
Quote paper
Sarah Doerfel (Author), 2011, An Analysis of the Effects of Contextual Representation: Andy Warhol’s “Screen Tests” in an Exhibition and in Book Form, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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