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Andy Warhol's Screen Tests: I'll Be Your Mirror

09/26/2011 07:04 pm ET | Updated Nov 26, 2011

By David Selden

Warhol's Screen Tests show the artist's gaze at its blankest. Auditioning factory stars and starlets, (and whoever might happen to drop by his notorious studio) in front of a locked or unlocked frame, these harshly lit studies function as portraits of the sitters. In the artist's strategically vague or absent instruction of "no action", the subjects squirm or pout, fidget or stare blankly.

Shot between 1964 and 1966, the Screen Tests captured Allen Ginsberg, Nico, Lou Reed, Salvador Dali, Dennis Hopper, and Bob Dylan, and that's but a few of those who found themselves trapped before the relentless eye of Andy's camera. These 472 silent portraits show the Factory at its height.

Following his first solo pop show at the Stable Gallery, the art world had sat up and taken notice of the painter's use of iconography -- Campbell's soup cans, Coca Cola bottles, Elvises and Marilyns. With that, Warhol's transition from commercial illustrator to fine artist was confirmed. The success of this exhibition had allowed Warhol to rent his first studio in 1963 and provided space for the artist's growing coterie as well as for the mass production of his paintings. Impressed by a visit to the apartment of Billy Name the artist had him decorate the studio with silver paint, tin foil and broken mirrors and the legendary Silver Dream Factory was born.

Andy Warhol's Screen Tests 1964-1966 Watch more on Network Awesome

Already a fixture in the downtown art scene, Warhol encountered Jonas Mekas, and it was with his encouragement that Andy ventured into the medium. Among his earliest films, Sleep (1963) featured the poet John Giorno and lasted eight hours. According to Mekas, the premier was attended by nine people, two of whom left after the first hour. Undeterred, they went on to complete the eight hour Empire (1964), a single static shot of the Empire State Building alleviated only by the brief reflections of Mekas and Warhol as they periodically changed the film canister.

The epic length of these static films were influenced both by Mekas' strict aesthetics and by the minimalism of La Monte Young's Theatre of Eternal Music, amongst whose members were John Cale and Angus MacLise. Indeed, Young was originally slated to provide scores for Warhol's early experiments with static cinema.

Another formative influence on Warhol's films was the artist and filmmaker Jack Smith whose Flaming Creatures (1963) introduced a note of high camp and hysterical pyschodrama. Smith provided a link between the austere aesthetics of the experimental film scene and the wild antics of Charles Ludlum's Theatre of the Ridiculous and the downtown drag scene. According to Warhol, it was Smith that gave him the idea of not turning off the camera and continuing to film the actors as they grew bored.

The brittle, amphetamine-fueled atmosphere of the Factory provided the perfect crucible for Andy's experiments with film. The petty cruelties and tensions amongst the glitterati, chancers, fantasists and lovers with which the artist surrounded himself created cliques and factions whose jealousies Warhol mined ruthlessly for the material for his films.

In the five years between 1963 and 1968 Warhol produced close to 650 movies ranging from austere avant-garde cinéma vérité to self consciously trashy sexploitation and horror parodies. This period of frantic activity came to an abrupt halt in 1968 when Valerie Solanas shot and seriously wounded the artist. After a slow and difficult recovery Warhol moved the Factory to a more corporate and professionalized footing, expelling most of his retinue and delegating his film making activities to Paul Morrissey. Though less active, he remained an icon the likes of which he idolized in his own works. He still does today.