Motion Pictures exhibition presents another side of artist Andy Warhol

Photo: CTK

As well as his famous paintings of pop culture icons, the US artist Andy Warhol also made scores of films, often single, unedited shots of his favourite people, or even somebody sleeping for five hours. Now a number of those films are on show in an exhibition entitled Andy Warhol Motion Pictures at Prague’s Rudolfinum.

Petr Nedoma is the director of the Rudolfinum.

“Andy Warhol isn’t a filmmaker – he’s an artist. And his visuality, his way of seeing, is that of an artist. That’s something very well captured by the curator Klaus Biesenbach, who has installed individual Screen Tests like pictures – in frames and on the wall. They are hung beside each other in the gallery, because they’re silent. The viewer passes through a real picture gallery, albeit one in which the pictures have been brought to life.”

The Screen Tests referred to by Mr Nedoma are films in which people like the Velvet Underground’s Lou Reed, actor Dennis Hopper and socialite Edie Sedgwick are left sitting in front of a camera for four minutes.

The longer films in the show include Empire, in which the camera is trained on the top of the Empire State Building for eight hours, and Blow Job, a half-hour-plus continuous shot of the face of a young man evidently receiving oral sex.

In what sense, though, was Andy Warhol a film director? Did he oversee others turning his ideas into reality – as with many of his paintings – or was he himself behind the camera in a hands-on way? Curator Klaus Biesenbach:

“It depends on which Warhol you’re looking at. The later Warhol did narrative movies in a team that he didn’t really direct but rather encouraged, or made possible. In the ‘Silver’ Factory years [first phase of the Factory studio]…I actually think when you go upstairs and look at the works…I wouldn’t necessary call them movies.

“In the very beginning in the Factory they were called ‘stillies’ – like a still. I think they were very close to his portraits, and I think they’re very close to the photo booth photography. So I would actually think of them as very different from a movie.”

They seem unedited. Was it the case that he couldn’t edit, or he wouldn’t edit?

“I think it’s a concept. I think they were conceived to be unedited, because it was part of the concept that you had to confront yourself – as the object of the Screen Test you have to confront yourself with the camera, and you had to sit that time through. And I think that it’s important that they are not edited.”

The Screen Tests feature famous people or soon to be famous people simply sitting there with the camera on them for five minutes or so – where did that idea come from?

“I think the idea is a common idea when you want to do a movie, you want to do a screen test – you want to find out whether the artist, whether the actor you’re wanting to cast has a screen presence, looks good next to the other actors, looks good on set in the scene.

“It’s actually a common practice but Warhol used this to find a contemporary version of making a portrait. And by leaving them alone in front of the camera they even somehow bring in their character – some of them are patient, some of them are curious, some of them are a little cheeky. So I think they bring in their character.”

How are viewers meant to take this exhibition? There are so many hours of film, more than a day altogether, I suppose, often in which nothing is happening.

“I think they should experience it as walking through a portrait gallery, walking through a gallery that would have similar images in photography, for example.

“Perhaps it is sometimes interesting to understand that even by waiting nothing will happen. So it’s perhaps more understanding the concept of time than sitting through.”

The Rudolfinum’s Petr Nedoma says visitors to Andy Warhol Motion Pictures are – because of the unusual nature of the ‘exhibits’ – lingering longer than at other shows.

“I see it because my office is right in the middle of the gallery, so I walk through it many times a day. People really do spend more time here than at a regular exhibition. Also Warhol’s films are slowed down a bit, which makes them magical – they really get a grip on the viewer. At the same time, I don’t know if any viewer has been here yet who’s seen all the films.”

The two dozen or so static, black-and-white films in the exhibition were all made between 1963 and 1966 and are among scores of experimental pictures made by Andy Warhol. But what kind of movies was the artist into himself, as a viewer? Klaus Biesenbach:

Photo: CTK
“I would frame that differently. I think he had a camera eye. Being on the telephone, recording all the telephone conversations and filming so much, I think he had a camera eye.

“And of course one knows that he knew Kenneth Anger, that he knew Jack Smith, who was more experimental of course…

“I would describe him more like a camera, like a recording…always paying attention, always observing, always editing, always grouping. So he was a true artist.”

These films were experimental to say the least 40-plus years ago. But today do you think they still have something to offer contemporary viewers?

“We toured the show to Buenos Aires, to Rio, to Sao Paulo, to Berlin, to Moscow, and interestingly it draws a very, very young crowd. Because if you are 16, 17, 18, 19 and you think about what art is, I think it’s very important to understand that 40 years ago, when their parents were born, already people were pushing the envelope and innovating, innovating the idea of what art could be.”

Andy Warhol Motion Pictures runs until April 5.