When P. Adams Sitney published Visionary Film in 1974, he coined the term "structuralist film" to describe what Stan Brakhage, Harry Smith, Maya Deren, Jordan Belson and so many others had been doing with moviemaking. The idea was to bring the artifice and object-making of every film out from behind the illusionism of narrative and romanticism. Then on page 337, Sitney arrived at Andy Warhol.
He recognized Warhol’s silent films such as Eat and Sleep for being works of genius, but he had a difficult time putting his finger on the reason why. Sitney first defined Warhol’s black-and-white silent films as send-ups of the earnestness of Jack Smith, Kenneth Anger and others. He then interpreted them as extensions of Marcel Duchamp’s dictat that the viewer completes the work, and finally marveled at the masterful effortlessness of Warhol’s technique, letting the camera follow its own passive lens and slowing down the projection to 16 frames per second from the 24 frame per second exposure to flatten the image.
It is this almost Greenbergian flattening that the Museum of Modern Art has pursued in its impressive if too spectacular, in the Guy Debordian sense, re-installation of Eat, Sleep, Blow Job, Kiss and some screen tests. The sixth floor of MoMA with its large HDTV wall projections has reduced these films to the very paintings which Andy intended them to be, but lacked the technological means to enforce. When the Whitney exhibited many of these same films in 1988, shortly after Warhol’s death, they were confined to a theater, and what film historian David Thomson, like Sitney an acolyte of Warhol’s silent film genius, described as being lost in the dark.
Clearly, darkness is not the problem at MoMA, but transparency is.
These films are lessened by being experienced as art objects. The screen tests of Nico, Baby Jane Holzer brushing her teeth and a young Lou Reed are now no more than magnificent paintings, resisting interpretation as bits of film history. Their antiquarian appeal has given way to a postmodern coolness. At the opening, guests ignored the signs prohibiting mobile devices and joyously filmed away in front of Klaus Biesenbach, Alana Heiss, Owen Wilson (our Taylor Mead!) and Kalup Linzy.
May I suggest to Mr. Biesenbach that he encourage filming via handheld device, both as a better tribute to Andy the movie man, who was a handheld device all by himself, and as a more honest transmission, than flat screen gorgeousness, of what these movies are about.
"Andy Warhol: Motion Pictures," Dec. 19, 2010-Mar. 21, 2011, at the Museum of Modern Art, 11 West 53rd Street, New York, N.Y. 10019.
CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).