Public Images Limited Warhol at MoMA


Formerly the chief curator of Media and Performance Art at MoMA, and currently the Director of MoMA PS1 and MoMA’s Chief Curator at Large, Klaus Biesenbach has for the past five years concurrently organized a tour of the exhibition “Andy Warhol: Motion Pictures” as it has traveled to Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo, Buenos Aires, Miami, Moscow and Prague. This month, the show came to MoMA, where it was expanded to include a 16-mm screen test displayed in its original format and a movie theater set up in a gallery. “Bringing it back to MoMA makes it more ambitious,” Biesenbach told me, the day before Christmas Eve, as he was preparing to leave for a mountain climbing expedition in Chile. “No one asks too many questions in Moscow or Buenos Aires. But in New York, you have a lot more people coming in.”


The show opens in the atrium of the sixth floor gallery at MoMA with the 1964 screen test of Ethel Scull, the controversial pop art collector, and a supporter of Warhol. The film is projected in 16-mm, and hung alongside photobooth stills of Scull. The juxtaposition illustrated Warhol’s jump, in 1963, from portraiture on still film to film. It is followed, in the next room, by a monumental projection of Sleep (1963), a study of John Giorno made with a 16-mm black-and-white Bolex, and Warhol’s first experimentation with what he called “Living Portraits.” On either side it’s flanked by Eat (1963) and Blow Job (1963); as a trio the films create a portrait of the average man in banal, machinic, glamorous quotidien life. “Warhol’s portrait making was very connected to his filmmaking,” Biesenbach explained. “I wanted to create a portrait gallery in the exhibition.”

In the next room, 12 of Warhol’s screen tests are projected into frames as large as seven by nine feet. The experience is like encountering royal moving portraits. The mood of the room is dark, and reverential. The icons are a part of the counter-cultural Pantheon—Factory superstars Paul America, Nico and Edie Sedgwick—and the America avant-garde—Allen Ginsberg, Susan Sontag, Dennis Hopper and Lou Reed.

Although originally shot at 24 frames per second, “stillies” are slowed down, as specified by Warhol, to 16 frames per second, a rate used in early silent films. The result is a series of silent and slow-paced moving images that, when shown all at once, create a blown out, whitewashed dream.

Warhol’s genius lay in his ability to reveal his subjects triangulating between their celebrity image and their self, with an unrelenting and often unforgiving gaze. Stripped of a character to impersonate, Paul America smiles awkwardly, revealing a discomfort at the scrutiny. But Warhol knows that even anxiety is performed, and while his technique is persistent, the presence of the camera never disappears. Allen Ginsberg, for his part, displays an unnerving ability to stare straight into the lens without blinking for minutes on end. 

The exhibition’s final room comprises the auratic, cave-like space of the classic movie theater, lining up 50 cushioned movie seats in front of a monumental screen, on which is projected Kiss (1963–1964) and Empire (1964). “I thought about the romantic notion of movie theaters, and the size of them. Of course Warhol loved the intimacy, as well as the libidinous quality,” Biesenbach explained. It’s easy to forget, sitting in the gallery, that the subject matter of Kiss, which includes shots of both gay and straight couples making out for minutes on end, would have shocked audiences at their moment of creation. Today, the films seem almost naive.

Installing a movie theater in MoMA suggests an attempth to historicize public cinema viewing, and adds a certain romance to “Motion Pictures.” “The movie theater is a place where you take a date,” Biesenbach told me. “It’s the most intimate and life-changing of all spaces. It’s all about death and love and revolution and dinosaurs. And the movie theater is extremely emotional. You take a date, because you don’t have to talk too much.”

And yet the technologies of viewership change, and with it the imaginaiton of public imagery. “Who’s going to the movies anymore?” Biesenbach mused. “I think the show is an homage to the movie theater.”