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RISD Museum exhibit shines light on the cinematic side of Warhol

Andy Warhol’s silent film portraits of stars of the 1960s is on display now at the RISD Museum

An unassuming visitor to the Rhode Island School of Design Museum who passes through the dark, silent corridor on the first floor might be capitvated by a larger-than-life screen test of Edie Sedgwick, a famous socialite and fashion model of the 1960s.  “Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests,” a series of 20 silent film portraits of both famous and obscure personalities of the 1960s, is on exhibit in the New Media section of the RISD Museum until May 11, 2014.

Warhol recorded his subjects — including iconic figures such as Marcel Duchamp, Taylor Mead and Salvador Dali — on 100-foot rolls of silent, black and white film with a 16mm Bolex camera. The screen tests are played on a slow speed for about four minutes.

But the frames appear to move in real time, and at times “you don’t notice that you’re watching a slow-motion film,” said John W. Smith, the museum’s director and curator.

Together, the portraits produce a sort of mesmerizing calm and can cause viewers to drift off at times, but their impact can still be deep. As Warhol once said, the series has the potential to “help the audiences get more acquainted with themselves.”

Smith said the projection of these subjects on a large screen allows direct eye contact between the viewers and Warhol’s subjects, adding that “it is almost as if the viewers are the cameras.”

The relationship between viewer and subject is “undisturbed,” he said.

Smith, who previously worked for several years at The Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, said the RISD Museum decided to show these particular works by Warhol in part because they have never before been shown in the Boston and Providence area.

“I tried to choose a good cross section” of Warhol’s screen tests, he said. “I tried to focus on the artists, poets, musicians, dancers, actors, etc. that would have greater affinity to the (RISD) community.”

Most visitors to the museum seemed to pass briefly through the exhibition. Those who stayed spoke to the range of experiences possible with the material shown. “Sometimes I’m bored, sometimes I can’t stop watching,” said museum visitor Anandashankar Mazamdar.

“The fact that they are called screen tests gives a feeling of experimentation, an unfinished artwork,” said RISD student Tyler O’Grady.

O’Grady saw in them “a sense of liveliness” that can at times feel “overwhelming and awkward,” he added. It often feels as “if we’re in the same room with them.”

As a leading figure of the pop art movement of the 1950s and 1960s, Warhol sought to challenge the traditional convention of art through the use of unusual media and pop culture images.

Smith said these screen tests demonstrate Warhol’s interests in the history of film and filmmaking, portraiture and the idea of mass reproduction — an essential element of pop art.

“These screen tests represent a visual encyclopedia of young and energetic people who were shaping new direction in the music, film, dance and art industries,” he added. “They also prelude to his longer career of filmmaking.”



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