Here’s what it was really like to be one of Warhol’s superstars
In May 2015, New York got to see some of Andy Warhol’s works as never before: at 11.57 pm every night, selections of the “screen tests” originally made by the artist in the mid-1960s were shown on electronic billboards around Times Square. On 27 February 2020, London will also get a unique experience with these Warhol artworks when a selection of them are screened at the Barbican, accompanied by a new soundtrack. But despite their name, these films are not screen tests in the conventional sense. The term is recorded as having been first used in the film industry in 1917, to refer to a test of a performer’s suitability for a role on camera, and while Warhol did make several feature-length films, his tests were not used to audition people for roles in any of these other movies.
The origins of the project can be traced back to early 1964, when Warhol saw an NYPD booklet featuring the faces of the current Thirteen Most Wanted Men and was inspired to make his own series on people listed in groups of 13. Over time, this idea would expand to a series of “living portraits” of some of the most notable artists of his time, in the form of short films each lasting a few minutes long. They were made across the years of 1964 to 1966, although they were initially referred to as “stillies” and did not become known as “screen tests” until towards the end of 1965. These short films were used for a wide variety of purposes, sometimes on compilation reels based around different themes, and on many occasions as projections in the background of various events, ranging from music performances to scenes within Warhol’s own films like Chelsea Girls.
HOW THEY WERE MADE
Most of the screen tests were filmed at Warhol’s New York studio the Factory, during the period it was located at 231 East 47th Street. They were shot on 100-foot rolls of 16mm black and white film, using a stationary Bolex camera, and were silent as the Bolex was not equipped for recording sound. Most originally lasted for around three minutes, as this was the amount of time needed for the complete roll of film to work its way through the camera. While shot in real time, the films were designed to be shown more slowly: Warhol made them at a rate of 24 frames per second but screened them at 16 frames per second, so the three minutes the subject originally sat for became a four-and-a-half-minute experience for the viewer.
The early films followed a number of rules that stipulated the subject should remain still, try to avoid blinking, and not smile or speak at any point. Despite attempts to follow the restrictions, some subjects begin to touch and play with their face or hair after a while, self-conscious due to the intense focus on them. The test therefore also becomes one of the subject’s concentration and stamina. However, many of the later films do show sitters moving freely in one way or another, and part of the fascination is the way each personality makes itself felt through the limitations of the setting. Over time the tests evolve from a test of the subject’s ability to adhere to the rules, to a test of the ways in which an individual’s personality could come across on screen despite the deliberate restrictions of the format.
THE SUBJECTS OF THE SCREEN TESTS
Many visitors to the Factory were invited to sit for a screen test during this period. Warhol and his friends wanted most famous people who came by to participate, and a camera was set aside for this purpose in case any visitor caught his interest as a potential subject. Most of those invited agreed to be filmed; it was considered flattering to be asked. He also filmed people close to him, including friends, lovers, and collaborators. It has been estimated that 472 tests were made, featuring a total of 189 people, some of whom were filmed on multiple occasions. Warhol himself also sat for a test at some point, although the film has been lost and only a few stills survive. Some of the most notable Screen Test subjects include the following:
Bob Dylan sat for two screen tests in 1966 which attracted a substantial degree of media attention at the time. In contrast to most of the other screen tests, which were not intended to investigate potential subjects for film, Warhol was keen on the idea of Dylan appearing in one of his feature-length projects (although this would ultimately not transpire). During the visit, Dylan walked around the Factory and looked at examples of Warhol’s art. As it happened, two reels of film were already set up, one for a wide shot, the other for a close-up, and Dylan was persuaded to sit for two separate tests. Afterwards, Warhol gave him a painting of Elvis Presley as a gift, which Dylan accepted but exchanged for a couch at a later point.
Lou Reed and the other members of The Velvet Underground first met Warhol in 1965. He became their manager and was one of the producers on their debut album, The Velvet Underground and Nico. Reed would sit for a number of screen tests in 1966, most of which were intended to be projected in the background of the band’s performances. Some tests were also compiled onto reels to be shown at Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable (EPI) events, multimedia celebrations which brought together live music, the projection of still and moving images, dance performances, and experimental lighting and set design.
Nico (real name Christa Päffgen) was the lead vocalist on The Velvet Underground’s debut album; it was Warhol who introduced the singer to the band and suggested they collaborate. After the release of the record, Nico moved on to work as a solo artist, but it would come to be regarded as one of the most influential albums ever made. She would sit for 11 Screen Tests in total, one of the highest numbers made by any of the subjects. ST238 was regarded by Paul Morrissey as one of the best images of Nico, and would also be used as part of the EPI background projections.
Warhol’s screen tests did not just focus on established stars, they also reflected Warhol’s interest in being able to transform “everyday” people into celebrities, as shown through his showcasing of those who became known as the “Warhol Superstars.” These were formerly unknown people who became famous through their work with Warhol, and many of them make appearances in the Screen Tests. The most renowned of the “Warhol Superstars” would be Edie Sedgwick, who first met him in March 1965 and would go on to appear in many of his films that year, including Poor Little Rich Girl, filmed in her own apartment. By the following year, their friendship was in decline and they stopped working together, but she remains an iconic figure whose style continues to be influential today.
Warhol first met Salvador Dalí at the St Regis Hotel in New York and was overwhelmed by the experience of socialising with the surrealist legend. Dalí would go on to sit for two Screen Tests, both of which defy many of the rules under which the earlier shorts were made: in one, Dalí is recorded with the camera upside down; in the other, he vanishes from the screen completely midway through the test. He would remain a source of fascination for Warhol, who would later make a 35-minute film about Dalí visiting the Factory in 1966.
Warhol and the artist Marcel Duchamp were admirers of each other’s work: Warhol owned more than 20 Duchamp pieces, and in February 1966 Duchamp invited Warhol, along with a number of other artists, to participate in an exhibition on the theme of chess. Warhol failed to return his RSVP card but showed up at the exhibition anyway, where he made this screen test, one of the few which was not recorded at the Factory itself. Warhol had plans to collaborate with Duchamp on other projects, including a projected 24-hour film, but these were never realised due to the artist’s death in 1968.
THE AFTERMATH OF THE SCREEN TESTS
The last of the Screen Tests seem to have been shot around November 1966, although they would continue to be utilised in Warhol’s work for some time afterwards. However, after 1970 Warhol stopped giving permission for public screenings of most of his films, including the Screen Tests, so many stayed unseen for decades. Ironically, the lack of screenings of the tests may have helped many of them survive, as the original film prints were fragile and might have been weakened by overuse. Today the Screen Tests are accessible again, and in some ways can be seen as a forerunner of the social media age: illustrating the ability to turn regular people into celebrities by showcasing their faces and personalities on film.