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Friday, January 10, 2014

ARTING About...? Andy Warhol's "Screen Tests" and Rhode Island School of Design Museum (RISD)

by Robin Scott Peters

12 degrees. I blinked rapidly in the glaring light of my IPhone 4.  The Weather Channel my favorite App, as I do travel a bit.  Need to know what tornado or blizzard I may encounter.  So cold out.  I considered not going but the sun poured into the bedroom calling me to engage my planned outing to Rhode Island School of Design Museum (RISD).

I was last at RISD Museum seven years prior.  I attended a textile exhibit.  I was intrigued by the arrangement of the galleries connected by separate buildings.  The Chance Center, Pendleton House, Fain Education Gallery, Gelman Student Gallery, Metcalf Auditorium, Danforth Lecture Hall--and other multiple galleries and halls are collectively impressive in this seemingly compact location.  I carefully maneuvered the small galleries, down tight long hallways, passing through large glass doors pouring into vast open galleries and then into smaller rooms with lavish treasures.  The "Space" in which our art and treasures are displayed certainly affect the interpersonal experience.  The sense of "hunt" made my experience palpable.  I definitely wanted to return after my first visit.

A bitter cold January 7th vs Andy Warhol's Screen Tests.  Hmmm?  No contest.  I Tweeted out from my @filmrobin account I was on my way to an adventure.  As an artist, I am familiar with Andy Warhol, but only in the most general and "Pop" way.  Which is ironic since a primary focus of his was the examination of "Pop" Culture.  That which is superficial, yet not.  This definition of mine is a starting point, of course.  I could pick out the painting of the Campbell Soup Can and tell you "Yea, that's a Warhol."  But more than that--well that is what a museum is for, right?  Gather some knowledge get some entertainment!  I was on the RISD museum website RISD Museum and when I encountered the opportunity to get a bit more in depth by viewing screen tests I had to do this.  I am a trained director. Love to look at people's faces.  What we can find out?  My mind clicked: They (RISD) probably have the screen tests set up in a viewing room.  Have to make sure I get a good seat.

In the car.   Twelve Noon.  $1 cup of Cumberland Farms coffee.  No traffic.  GPS says 55 mins.

I was greeted at the information desk by two ladies.  A twelve dollar non-member admission price. Very reasonable.  The ladies answered my questions regarding the Warhol exhibit: "Down the stairs, through the doors on your left then right down the hall."  I grabbed the RISD Museum floor plan guide and the RISD Museum Winter-Spring '14 News and headed eagerly to my "screen test" destination.  I followed the directions looking for a room that contained a sealed door, where, like a director one would sit in a screening room maybe even with a beret on, but alas alack to no avail.  I wandered a bit and found myself in, what at first seemed like, a large hallway in between two larger galleries holding 20th-21st Century Art & Design.  I noticed a low long black couch.  Thin metal frame with thin black faux leather cushions.  Just behind the couch were placed three black metal chairs.  Six feet in front of this set up was a wall with a screen. The screen was maybe 5x5.  I was stunned for a second as the realization this is where the screening was going to be held, settled.  In the middle of a large hallway.  I was incredulous.  Where's my screening room?, Where's the raked seating?  Where is the clatter of the film reel playing in the booth behind me?

There was a face on the screen.  It looked familiar, but I couldn't put a name to it.  I moved to the faux couch and sat.  There, laminated, was a sheet of paper listing faces in three columns.  A total of 20 faces--screen tests.  Each about 4 minutes in length due to 16 fpp.  Warhol shot in silent, black and white, 16 mm film.  I began to calculate in my non-mathematical mind: 4 minutes per screen test times 20 screen tests is 80 minutes of filming.  I glanced back up to the screen staring at the grainy black and white film. That face was still up there.  Still looking back at me.  Black shark eyes, receding hairline. Wild bushy long hair surrounding his chubby face.   I repositioned myself on the faux couch to settle in and get more comfortable, I couldn't.  Peering back up, that face was still there.  Black shark eyes. Never blinking.  Who is this?  I grabbed the laminate sheet scanned the rows for a face that matched. Allen Ginsberg, of course, that makes total sense.
Allen Ginsberg staring intently into the camera
A poet-critic whom can look the world directly and call it out eye to eye.  Then, a splattering of white, flickering image from black to white and then white out. The end of 100 feet of film Warhol used for each of his screen tests.  The blast of white, I liken to cleansing the palate between tasting fine wines.

The next image was of a woman, Mary Woronov. Warhol used "famous" and "regular" folk in his screen tests.  I imagine she is just a regular lady. She had interesting eyes and lips.  You could see her get more and more comfortable then start to play slightly with her look.  Maybe she was motivated by some underlying thought.  Smirks, sensual, smart, intense, proud, defiant and strong. Many different faces.  Pirandello-esque.

Lucinda Childs was next.  Fear, untrust, was what I viewed.  She looked off right often.  Then direct to the camera.  Strong furrowed brow.  Tilt of her head chin raised.  As if she were demanding her "due."  A level of condescension at times.  Then a wave, aloof.  Head down, hair drops, a sense of acquiescence.  A fly lands on her shoulder and grabs the spot light as it flits about her.  Two young men sat down behind me and began to watch.  One reached over the couch and took the laminate sheet that was by my side.

The blast of white lead to the next screen test a wide-eyed man with a thin turned-up moustache--Salvador Dali.
Salvador Dali, an iconic moment
Huge eyes staring directly into the camera. Slowly he settles.  His eyes more relaxed. Dali begins slightly turning left and right cutting his eyes back to the camera.  And from behind me I hear one of the young men say "I don't have the patience for this." The young man got up and his friend followed him out. They stayed less than four minutes.  I stayed and watched.

Jim Rosenquist was next.  He was sitting on some type of stool, not seen.  He spun around in counter-clockwise circles.  The lighting was hot and direct and the deep black background set off his image. As his four minutes went on you could see his eyes start to get that movement one gets when dizzy.  Or maybe that was me watching him go round and round.

Susan Sontag wore black "Cat Woman" glasses, taking long leisurely drags off a cigarette.  She hid behind her glasses, not able to see where she was glancing.  A mystery.  She settled into the monotony of waiting taking long leisurely drags off her cigarette.

Bob Dylan young pouty lips, smoking, looking all around and down.  He tries not to look directly into the camera but wants to and when he does he smiles and breaks a big laugh and gets up and walks out of the screening.
Bob Dylan, exposed.
Seconds later he comes back more serious and attempts to look directly again.

Two young ladies sit in the chairs behind me as I watch Lou Reed.  Lou, just passed this October 27th, 2013.  He looks directly into the camera. No blinking.  So young.  Half face lit, half in darkness.  He and Ginsberg reacted so much the same way in front of the camera. Master poets.

Dennis Hopper was up next.  The two young ladies sitting behind me began to stir and by the time Dennis was done they were gone.  But an older gentleman sat down next to me on the couch and began to watch. Dennis Hopper had a cross lighting on him which created shadows down the center of his face.  This was perfect to accentuate his tiny intense features.  You can sense his breathing feel the pull from his forehead and brow.  He looks deeply into the camera as if directly into me, the viewer, now 46 years later.  He takes a huge breath and all that dissipates and there is a vulnerableness. He is allowing us to look deep into him and then it's gone.

I don't know when the older gentleman sitting next to me got up and left.  It could have been during Nico, the blonde that darted in and out of the camera looking everywhere off left and right and up and down. Playing with her hair.  Bored, but not.  Or when Henry Geldzahler played with his collar and tie, his odd haircut and oval face, small dark eyes staring out.

No one else sat near or with me for the remainder of the 80 minutes.  Two young mothers came into the area.  They had four children, all pretty little ladies.  I first noticed them when I entered the museum. I am a big proponent of youth access to art.  These two ladies introducing their young ones to art, but not just art, how to behave in the museum.  A tough challenge for young inquisitive minds who are so tactile.  One mom was asking the children questions regarding the screening.  "Is that a movie?" "That's a pretty lady in the movie, yes?"  And then they were gone.  Though there was a constant shuffle of people, visitors to the museum, staff and administrators, I realized what made me initially feel incredulous now made all the sense in the world.  The placement of the exhibit allowed for a true and natural response to Warhol's screen test.  Warhol was looking for the audience to get acquainted with themselves, what better way than to allow a RISD Museum patron to stumble upon themselves, like stumbling across a mirror, looking in, realizing "OMG I really needed to see that about myself."  The interaction around me, made me feel like I was in the middle of a set. The quiet hustle and bustle.  The energy of artist making it happen .  Holding this screening in the Spalter New Media Gallery and not in some room set up to be a "theater" with a door -- perfect choice.

Edie Sedgewick, Taylor Mead and Marcel Duchamp wrapped up the screen test collection.  Ms. Sedgewick was mostly out of focus, round full lips and heavy eyebrow with dark eye liner.  Mouth slightly open, weird twittering blink.  She seemed as a deer in the headlights.  Taylor Mead took to the camera as if all alone in his bathroom.  Smug looks down into the camera with a smirk shit-eating grin. Nose flaring.  Definitely an I want to fight mode.  He mugs for the camera snarling, tongue wagging, lips puckering and big toothy grin.  Hilarious.  I can hear him saying "I'm a snake!!"  If you are in the Pop Culture know right now, you will appreciate that last comment.  A million plus other people did.

After Marcel Duchamp's stubby cigar and drink screen test I waited for the film to start again.  I realized I had caught every screen test except the first four.  I wanted to see them all and I did. 80 minutes of screen test.  It flew by.  Each face was exquisite to watch in the 16 fpp slow motion.  The ability to analyze intently the minutia, to see so much can be read in the fall of the chin and a raised brow.

I sat silent.  After a few moments I got up and began to wander about the rest of the museum.  I felt a bit disconnected.  As I walked from gallery to gallery a few displays caught my attention.  Yet I seemed non-plused about being there.  I spent another hour in this mode before deciding to leave. Standing in the main entrance applying my winter bitter cold life saving garb on, the two mothers with their collection of little ladies came bounding.  Mom #1 was getting their coats from the check room and Mom #2 was chatting with a staff member whom she seemed to know well.  Mom #1 comes from around the corner and sees the four little ladies climbing on and rubbing all over a glass sculpture in the lobby.  She moves to chastise the children and Mom #2 says "Oh, its okay, that's the only piece in the museum they are allowed to touch."  The girls were ecstatic. What joy to see their little faces, after being so good, behaving, wanting to touch everything they walked by the whole time they were in the museum.
Four little ladies enjoying art as they touch and play
I wondered what their little faces would tell under the camera's preview, four minutes of joy. RSID more touchable art please!!

When I got outside into the late-afternoon sun and the bitter cold, still bitter, I continued to examine the effect of the screen tests upon me.  My footsteps crunching on top of the last remnants of ice sounded like the intellectual crunching going on in my head -- Voyeuristic: Looking into someone's personal moments?  No, all these people were willing participants; Judgement: Reading their actions, their "body language" their facial expressions, denotes a level of judgement needed for analysis. Thou shall not judge?; Jealousy: I could have done that?; Motivation: I could still do that; Disinterest: How come I was enthralled with the piece?  I stayed all 80 minutes.  Of the people who stopped no one spent more than five minutes watching; Ego: I wonder what I would look like up there?  Crunch, crunch, crunch.

RSID Museum quotes Warhol's search is to "help the audiences get more acquainted with themselves." During my drive home resounding in my head was the voice of the Young Man: "I don't have the patience for this."   Is that what was bothering me?  Our current culture doesn't have the patience to get acquainted with themselves?  We can't see the need or importance of investing time in self evaluation allowing for a deeper connection with others?  Four minutes without sound, action, bombs, breasts, Iphone, Ipad, XBox, or whatever the newest electronic gizmo of the 90 day cycle we have come to know, lust and buy...can't find four minutes for the betterment of us through a personal non-technological bond?  Is it too much to ask?  Crunch, crunch, crunch.

Warhol defined his time.  And prognosticated our human disconnect?  I invite you to take the time and visit RISD Museum.  Sit,watch and engage.  Tell me if my characterization of Andy Warhol's Screen Tests exhibit and the faces and what they communicated  is or isn't ...?

Please visit: Twitter: @FilmRobin for up-to-date info on where I am travelling for ART. LinkedIn: for complete resume & work history. and look for Dr. Robin Scott Peters Ebooks now available. YouTube: for all my video work.