Andy Warhol's silent screen tests put to song
Mysterious behind wraparound shades, Velvet Underground bandleader Lou Reed drinks Coca-Cola while posing as a streetwise tough. His sometime muse and singing partner Nico, in contrast, seems agitated and jittery. Dancer Fred Herko, who would commit suicide just a few weeks later, smokes a cigarette, while the enigmatic Ann Buchanan stares unblinkingly for three full minutes, even as a tear rolls down her cheek.
These are just a few of the 472 “screen tests” that painter and conceptual artist Andy Warhol committed to film at his Factory studio during the mid ’60s. Collectively, these brief silent movies add up to a remarkable portrait of the New York City art scene during one of its most productive phases, but they’re also rarely seen outside of the gallery environment.
That’s going to change, however. Curators at Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania’s Andy Warhol Museum are currently mounting a major campaign to restore Warhol’s film works, and the first fruits of their labour will be shown at the Vogue Theatre on January 30, as 13 Most Beautiful”¦ Songs for Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests.
In keeping with the Warhol aesthetic, however, the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival presentation will be no ordinary night out at the movies: this initial sampling of screen tests will be accompanied by live music, courtesy of Dean & Britta, the duo project of former Galaxie 500 and Luna singer-guitarist Dean Wareham and his bass-playing partner, Britta Phillips.
Two years in development, the project made its debut last fall, as part of the Pittsburgh International Festival of Firsts.
“Once I knew we had the funding to commission an artist and to stage a substantial production, I pretty much immediately called Dean—and he was incredibly receptive,” says the museum’s associate curator for performance, Ben Harrison, speaking from his Pittsburgh office. “Obviously, there are many directions we could have gone, in much more abstract or experimental mode, but we really felt that, with Warhol as a pop artist and these screen tests being so immediate, we really just liked the pop approach that Dean & Britta would bring to it.”
Wareham admits that he was honoured by the invitation, especially as his music owes an acknowledged debt to Warhol protégés the Velvet Underground. But he also notes that accompanying these iconic images is not without its challenges.
“It’s sort of daunting,” says the soft-spoken New Zealander, on the line from the New York City apartment he and Phillips share. “The whole project has been daunting, because we’re out of our comfort zone. We’ve scored film before, but having to perform live to picture is something that we’ve never done. It has been a challenge, because putting this show on is like putting on a play. It’s not like playing in a rock club.”
Especially problematic, Wareham adds, was the task of choosing music to accompany the “bad-ass” Reed’s on-screen appearance.
“Initially, you think you don’t want to do anything that sounds like the Velvet Underground at all,” he notes, laughing. “But then, on the other hand, you can’t really avoid that. Finally, we found this obscure Velvets song that popped up on the Internet last year, called ”˜I’m Not a Young Man Anymore.’ It’s a live bootleg from 1967, at the Gymnasium in New York, and there’s only that one lyric, which repeats over and over. So it’s perfect.”
It’s a good metaphor for 13 Most Beautiful, too: something old, like you’ve never heard or seen before.