The Plestcheeff Auditorium at Seattle Art Museum is as unadorned as the mostly static image of Richard Rheem in the first four minutes of 13 Most Beautiful… Songs for Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests. Rheem’s is the first of 13 of Warhol’s so-called “tests”—taken from the 500 filmed between 1964 and 1966—that were projected recently at a sold-out performance featuring the musical accompaniment of Dean & Britta. That’s Dean Wareham, former frontman of seminal band Galaxie 500; Britta Phillips, who later joined Wareham’s follow-up project, Luna; and their band. The musicians were commissioned by the Andy Warhol Museum and Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, and they rose to the daunting challenge with grace: Their abrasive fluidity relieved the minimal film clips from an otherwise oppressive intensity.
All the screen tests are silent. You have to wonder why, given all the musicians Warhol knew. While filming Lou Reed drinking a Coke, Warhol could have said, “Hey, want to make some music for these clips?” Instead, the silence in these mostly still shots of mythic Factory figures creates the space for would-be still-life portraits to morph into mini-vignettes.
These are, in fact, films about space. Putting people onscreen without a context is an exercise in gaze. Their discomfort becomes your discomfort. A soundtrack creates distractions that detract from this wonderfully awkward dynamic—wonderful, that is, if like me you relish awkward moments. The ethereal and ambient sounds of Dean & Britta fill the embarrassing space, allowing the screen tests to literally and figuratively float above the band and the sounds of crashing waves in the music.
The musicians’ shaky, incorporeal sound often feels cinematic. Perhaps that’s why this performance feels like a fully realized Dean & Britta release—it breaks typical formula but maintains their identity.
They mix instrumental compositions with covers. In “I’ll Keep It with Mine,” a Nico song written by Bob Dylan and released on the album Chelsea Girl in 1967, our ears are accustomed to the melancholy hues of Nico’s voice-over. So were Britta’s ears: The singer had to sing the song repeatedly until she found her own voice, she explained in an e-mail interview. Onscreen, Nico’s stoicism is betrayed by her fidgety figure in front of the camera, making the breathy and feminine voice of Britta the embodiment of this duality.
In her screen test, poet Anne Buchanan maintains a stillness broken only by the salt water rolling down her cheeks, from her triumphant attempt not to blink. This makes her piece exceptional; where other subjects can’t help fidgeting, Buchanan staunchly provides the simplified, storyless beauty that Warhol was looking to capture. Distorted guitar and elusive layers of sound roll around until a weighty guitar line leads her tears down her cheeks and you remember that this isn’t a photo. Her tears collect at her chin, clinging, until one large leaden drop swings loose and Dean’s guitar slides quickly, creating the sound of a leaking faucet, transcending the soundtrack idea into something truly musically pictorial.
Cause and effect are symbolically exchanged between music and art. In Dennis Hopper’s clip, a tic in his neck seems a reaction to his ears being hurt by the snare drum right under his giant projected head.
Not all the pairings are successful. Ingrid Superstar goes from smiling to sucking on her finger to very self-conscious, covering her mouth and nose, until finally her discomfort becomes palpable. Her smile breaks in a spasm; the song “Eyes in My Smoke” remains distractingly cheerful.
The most intense clip features dancer and choreographer Freddy Herko. “Incandescent Innocent,” written for Herko’s test, lends the film a pulse via drum beat and bass behind a Velvet Underground–inspired guitar riff. You cannot see Herko’s eyes. He smokes and shifts out of the frame as if trying to escape. The mysterious quality of this instrumental song fits snugly into the safety of the strong shadows cast across his face. It turns out to be a requiem: The 28-year-old Herko killed himself that year.
Would Warhol have liked these? He leaves the loose tenets of pop art to guide us in the answer: Reuse was what he was all about. In this view, Dean & Britta’s project is pretty pop. “Warhol was very generous and not uptight about collaborating with people. He used to say, ‘Just do the easiest thing,’” Phillips wrote in an e-mail. Or, as Wareham said at the end of the performance when announcing the release of the DVD (expected in March), “If you don’t like the songs, you can always turn them down.”
Their tour takes them next to museums in Minneapolis, Chicago, Boston, and Massachusetts. Click here for information.