A screen test of the Factory Superstar tests her patience – and ours.
Another Warhol “Screen Test”, this time shot in early 1965, and putting a static Edie Sedgwick on screen for four minutes. (This week’s Pics will be entirely devoted to the “Tests”, since I recently got to see 20 in one go, at the RISD museum.)
The “Screen Tests” are much more varied than even their fans recognize, but this is the classic version, starring the classic Factory Superstar: The camera never moves or zooms or changes focus, and the sitter seems to be trying to look impassively into the lens. (YouTube has a bunch of lousy copies of the film.) This piece comes across at first as a standard fashion-world cover shot, as we’d expect from a former commercial artist like Warhol. Sedgwick seems to have been chosen, like a model, for her charisma and presence on camera, and the aim could be to document this, using a flattering on-camera light. But, as usual with Warhol, what starts off seeming straightforward soon reveals itself as weird: Though we are all used to presenting ourselves for the instant snap of a camera – or even for the frozen moment in an oil painting – we have no idea what it means to present ourselves over time, as unmoving human beings, and Sedgwick doesn’t, either. We viewers can feel the strain as Sedgwick tries to figure out what to do and how to be, and we feel for her, too. We might just stare into a lover’s eyes for this long, but probably not – and Sedgwick of course has nothing to stare at other than the cyclopean, unblinking, unfeeling, pupil-less eye of Warhol’s camera, and by implication at our absent eyes as we watch the footage. She seems pinned down like a bug, not just unmoving but frozen, or helpless, or under some Svengali’s control. (Why else, in the normal course of things, would anyone sit so still? The shadow lurking at left seems almost vampiric.) Thanks to the artifice of Andy’s steady gaze, Edie seems as vulnerable as she’s always been made out to have been in real life.
But the stress in this piece, or in any “Screen Test”, isn’t only on the sitter; we watchers are also stressed out by the task Warhol sets us. Before the “Screen Tests”, I wonder if any movie had ever asked an audience to suffer such an uninterrupted, stationary view of any star or subject? Four minutes is simply a very long time to stare at any image: Even the greatest Cezanne rarely gets that kind of unwavering attention. But that’s the kind of attention that Warhol’s “Screen Tests” demand of us. Since “nothing” happens in them – since there’s no larger plot or configuration to cling to – we can’t afford to look away, for fear of missing some telling detail. (Cezanne is full of details, too, of course, but we know that they will endure a lapse in our attention.) When every detail gets equal weighting, that is, none can be safely skipped. Trying to take notes on these pieces is murder, since you can’t afford to look down as you write. Warhol, supposedly a master of the superficial, as usual gives us works that demand the most profound thought and attention.
Andy's "Screen Tests" hover between Rembrandt and Dada
This is Marcel Duchamp, at age 78, in a single frame from one of Warhol’s “Screen Tests”, the four-minute filmed portraits that Warhol made by the hundreds in the mid 1960s, mostly by pointing his movie camera at a subject and asking them not to move. Twenty wonderful “Tests”, on loan from the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, are being shown at the museum of the Rhode Island School of Design, in projection, as they originally were, and unlooped, as they ought to be seen. (You need the suspense of knowing that if you blink, you may miss a detail that you won’t catch again).
The “Screen Tests” are now acclaimed as masterpieces of world portraiture, like Rembrandt with motion added, but that tends to tame them. Like almost all of Warhol’s mature work, when the “Tests” first appeared they seemed absurd and conceptual and divorced from the entire history of normal, expressive art making – they seemed Duchampian, that is, rather than Rembrandtian. At first, Warhol’s Pop art was also termed neo-Dada, which makes sense, given that Warhol admired and collected the works of Duchamp and Duchamp was an ardent Warhol fan. He saw Andy as his comrade in anti-retinal and utterly abnormal art. (“If you take a Campbell’s Soup can and repeat it fifty times, you are not interested in the retinal image. What interests you is the concept …” Duchamp once said.) But, as usual with Warhol, that take on him needs to be instantly contradicted: Seeing 20 of the “Screen Tests” in a row makes you realize just how carefully crafted they really were, as visual experiences. The lighting is immaculate and sometimes unusual, while also quite varied from subject to subject. The camera height and position also seems very considered, with each “Test” shot from higher or lower depending on how much elegance and elongation Warhol wanted to add to his sitter. (Lowering the camera is an old fashion photographer’s trick – which Warhol chose not to use with Duchamp, whose eyes line up with the lens.) Yet all that style leads to an unanswerable question: How much is it Warhol’s doing at all, and how much is it the product of a few tech-savvy followers, such as lighting designer Billy Name, making choices Warhol could care less about?
One final, funny thing, typical of the wylie Warhol: Alone among “Screen Test” sitters (as far as I can tell) Duchamp, Mr. Anti-retinal, is filmed against the backdrop of a perfectly optical work of art. It was a large-scale drawing by his new friend and acolyte Gianfanco Baruchello, and was on view at the chess-foundation benefit where Warhol and his camera caught up with Duchamp. That is, Duchamp is shown as being all eyes for a work of visual art – or is Warhol rather showing Duchamp making eyes at Warhol himself, who stares back through his own mechanical eye?
Robert Indiana got at the numbers and letters and words that construct American culture.
This is Robert Indiana’s “Exploding Numbers” (1964-66), from his lovely survey show that closes this weekend at the Whitney museum in New York. In the early 1960s, Indiana got at something the other Popsters didn’t, quite, in the same intense way. He understood that numbers and letters and words were a crucial component in American visual life – as signs of goods and their quantities, and of a certain kind of very public commercial culture. And he isolated just those aspects of that culture, divorced from most of the specifics of how they were presented to sell product on Main Street. “Exploding Numbers” is a lovely example of what he got up to, in a “purer” state – of pure numerosity, pure typography, pure graphic oomph – than the famous Love imagery that he came up with in ‘66, and that we can see at either side of this photo. The funny thing is that, in his Love works (of which I can remember my parents having the original Christmas-card version), Indiana did his job so well that the image actually ended up melding with the commercial, popular culture that its elements were borrowed from.
Cultural cliches collide in a marvel of 18th-century silkwork.
An object from my third visit to the Metropolitan Museum’s “Interwoven Globe: The Worldwide Textile Trade, 1500–1800”, probably the most important show of the fall season – and only open for another week. This amazing silk embroidery – yellow on one side, red on the other – was made in China in something like 1775, apparently for export to the West. (Click here to zoom in.) Its flowers respond to European taste, but its vase and amazing scholar’s-rock pedestal are notably Chinese. Given the globalization of style at that moment, however, I wonder if the flowers on this hybrid object could have been of greater interest to their Chinese designers, while the Chinoiserie cliches seemed a sop to clueless Europeans.
Or maybe both cultures got off on a glorious combination of cliche and novelty, even if they disagreed on which was which.
A video by Agnieska Kurant revives parts cut from famous movies.
In her solo show at SculptureCenter in New York, Agnieszka Kurant, a Polish artist, is presenting a charming work of video art called “Cutaways”. It features Abe Vigoda, Charlotte Rampling and Dick Miller, playing characters whose parts were cut from the iconic movies “Pulp Fiction”, “Vanishing Point” and “The Conversation”. (Click here to watch a clip from Kurant’s piece.) Kurant has crafted a new, cryptic narrative in which the three redundant characters come together in a wrecking yard. What’s especially nice, and strange, is that all three fictional figures seem to have aged along with the actors who played them, as though they’ve been wandering in some kind of Hollywood limbo for the moment to come back on set. It turns out that, for them at least, the cutting-room floor is not the end of the road. Artists have often been said to take on godlike powers of life and death, but here it feels almost true.
In 1871, Margaret E. Knight helped birth a design classic.
Could this classic, flat-bottom paper bag be the most important, influential object ever conceived by a woman? In MoMA’s show called "Designing Modern Women", the 1871 patent for the machine to make it is credited to one Margaret E. Knight, working at the Union Paper Bag Machine Company, in Philadelphia. More eyes must have settled on such a bag than have ever taken in the Mona Lisa or Michelangelo’s David. And could you carry your lunch to school if all you had to wrap it was a Monet?
In 1919, Ethel Parsons and Telfor Paullin made a painting that lifts hearts and souls, just by being fine art.
In 1919, Ethel Parsons and her husband Telfor Paullin painted this image of the Adoration of the Magi for the south chapel of the Episcopal church of Saint Bartholomew in New York, where I came across it recently as the backdrop for a lovely series of Christmas concerts. The image is closely based on altarpieces from 15th-century Italy, by way of the Victorian pre-Raphaelites. In the context of a new church in the New World, Parsons and Paulin must have had some hope that, by revisiting the styles of an era when pictures still had real sacred powers, her Saint Bart's Adoration would become something more than a work of art. I think she was too late: By 1919, art had usurped all of most pictures' functions. But, as an atheist admiring her Adoration while sacred carols floated around it, it seemed to me that just having art be art is a pretty damn fine thing.
Good Yule to One And All, and a Happy New Year!
Malerie Marder's brothel images get at the West's endless indecision about the meaning of prostitution.
This photo of Dutch prostitutes is from a solo show by Malerie Marder at Leslie Tonkonow gallery in New York. When the show was up for discussion at a recent edition of The Review Panel, the series of critics’ talk-fests organized by ArtCritical.com, all sorts of credible – and mutually exclusive – positions were tried on for size. Some speakers found the images just as sexist and exploitative as the profession these women are forced to belong to. Others praised Marder’s depiction of untraditional forms of female beauty, and the empowerment of big and old and even anorexic bodies that it implies. Still others felt that the pictures captured the tragic plight of women who have to sell themselves – or, alternatively, that the photos depicted women who’d taken charge of their bodies and lives, to pull cash from the pockets of men made idiots by their libidos. (Or of female photographers: I’ve heard that Marder paid her subjects the normal price of a trick.) Even though I tended to side with viewers who found the pictures and their subject problematic, I couldn’t simply dismiss the opposing opinions. This left me feeling that, more than anything, Marder’s photos are vastly successful in getting at our society’s total indecision about what prostitution is, and what it does to – or is it “for”? – women.
At the Guggenheim, Robert Motherwell's collages depend on patterns by others.
"Pancho Villa, Dead and Alive", made by Robert Motherwell in 1943, is from the lovely show of his early collages now at the Guggenheim in New York. That spotted surface glued on at right is identified as "German decorative paper", and must have existed already before Motherwell began his piece. It brings up one of the most interesting outstanding issues around Abstract Expressionist art: Were many of its classic devices, such as messy alloverism, already favorites in the decorative arts? The AbEx-ers were accused by their critics of "just making wallpaper" or "just producing tie fabrics" – which would seem to imply that the designers of wallpaper and ties had already discovered some elements of AbEx style.
Yto Barrada documents how Morocco's migrants get where they're going.
DAILY PIC: "Autocar–Tangier, Figs. 1–4," is a poignant group of images by Yto Barrada that's in the show of newly acquired photos at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. They present the corporate logos on the buses that run from Morocco to cities in Europe. Illegal and illiterate migrants use these symbols to figure out which buses they need to be on to reach their destinations of choice – unless they get nabbed before they even climb aboard. Barrada supplies quotes from some of those laborers, giving new meaning to her supergraphics:
Fig. 1: “Portugal bus goes direct, no stop. Nazarenes, old and young. Parked in front of the shrimp factory. One guard, but since he’s in charge of the whole area, he can’t check everything all the time. Climb in the middle of the planchas. Those who have papers go inside the bus.”
Fig. 2: “French with Moroccan plates. Migrants from Italy, Spain, France. Parked in front of the port near the ticket booth. 4 AM arrival in Tangier, 6 PM departure. Bring biscuits and dates, and plastic bag for shoes. They notice in Spain right away if your shoes are not clean. Bus goes onto Bismillah ferry, room for three small people under the bus.”
In 1968, filmmaker Serge Bard gave the art world a high-contrast buzz.
Groovy, baby. This is a frame from a high-contrast film called “Fun and Games for Everyone,” shot by Serge Bard in Paris in 1968 and showing the opening of the first exhibition of the French avant-gardist Olivier Mosset. (Click here to watch a clip, complete with fuzz-guitar soundtrack.) Mosset’s got an installation of new conceptual paintings on view now at the The Kitchen in New York, and it includes a back room with Bard’s vintage film. Despite the changes that were supposed to have been ushered in by mai ‘68, Mosset’s opening feels like art-world business as usual. Except that the energy of that scene in 1968 seems to totally eclipse what’s up today: It could be that the vigor in the art world and the vigor in the streets were just subsets of a larger will for change that we’ve lost.
Barbara Probst snaps single scenes from many angles – none seem to catch the truth.
This diptych by Barbara Probst is called “Exposure #109: Munich studio, 09.19.13, 5:31 p.m.”, and it’s in her solo show closing soon at Murray Guy gallery in New York. Probst’s work is built around a simple but fertile conceit: She sets up cameras in different positions around a single staged scene, then releases all their shutters at the same time. Sometimes the photos only vary in viewpoint; sometimes they are shot on very different kinds of film, with very different cameras. In today’s Daily Pic, the difference is at its most minimal: Probst’s two matching cameras must be just a few feet apart, with one looking into each of her two sitters’ eyes. Gaze normally seems a natural and necessary part of any photo’s essence, but here it’s revealed as deeply contingent and artificial. Other photo grids by Probst give much more varied views on her subjects: one self-portrait diptych consists of an extreme close-up on one of her feet, and also a view from a ladder that shows her taking that shot of her foot. The sense of contingency can be so extreme it’s disturbing; it can feel as though there’s barely any stable world out there for Probst’s photos to document. Her world seems utterly dependent on how it gets recorded.
Around 1817, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres scattered body parts across a canvas.
This strange image by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres instantly grabbed my attention, one recent day during a quick tour of the lovely museum at the Rhode Island School of Design, in Providence. John Smith, the director, told me that his curators had nabbed the picture for a song a little while back, after it went unsold at an auction. (So much for the wisdom of collectors.) The little canvas is a study for "Christ Offering Saint Peter the Keys to Paradise", a major altarpiece commissioned in 1817 for a church in Rome. The study includes hands and faces from different characters in the final picture, each painted with the canvas turned 90 degrees, so as to interfere less with viewing the other details. Of course, the result is a wonderful modernist assemblage that has an almost Surrealist flavor. So maybe what I've really got here is an Old Master discard being used – by me, the museum visitor – as a modern objet trouvé. This might not have won the out-loud approval of Ingres, the avid Academician, but I think his eyes would have understood.
The Metropolitan Museum shows psychedelic textiles from circa 1700
The term of art for this kind of textile is “Bizarre Silk”, and it couldn’t be more appropriate: This silk could pass as acid-test Art Nouveau, but it’s actually a fabric from an as-yet-unidentified source in early 18th-century Europe that shows an influence from as-yet-unidentified Asian cultures. The example shown here is in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum, where I saw it in the exhibition called “Interwoven Globe: The Worldwide Textile Trade 1500-1800”. I want a dressing gown made from it, to inspire my opium dreams.
At MoMA, Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin riff on Bertolt Brecht's take on conflict.
These are two pages from “War Primer 2”, a gripping artist’s book by Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin that I saw in the New Photography 2013 show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The book is an intervention into another volume: Bertholt Brecht’s own “War Primer”, which he published in German in 1955. It consisted of press images from World War II paired with four-line poems that cast light – and doubt – on the photos’ meanings. Broomberg and Chanarin have simply taken Brecht’s pages (in their 1998 English translation) and collaged on images of our recent “War on Terror” that they found on the Web. It’s sad, but I guess inevitable, that over more than 50 years the issues and imagery have stayed so much the same. The artistic strategies have too, which is much more surprising. When they work this well there may be no reason to change them.