More Voices: Filmmaker James Benning

Tue, Sep 30, 2008
In conjunction with the printed Gallery Guide that will be on hand for visitors to our Other Voices, Other Rooms exhibition, from time to time we'll be posting written or spoken takes on Andy Warhol in a blog area we're calling More Voices.

James Benning is an internationally recognized filmmaker of American landscapes. His most recent films are Casting a Glance, about Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, and RR, which is screening in the 2008 New York Film Festival.

Life Is Finite
By James Benning

Bill Traylor moved to the city (Montgomery, Alabama) at the age of 84. The whole of his prior life was spent farming, in the beginning as a slave on George Traylor's plantation where he acquired his name, then later as an indentured servant for the sons, and finally outliving the family. Traylor was forced to leave the land he worked for so many years when it was sold, hence his move to Montgomery. Within a year, sitting on a bench next to a Coca-Cola cooler and signs advertising Dr. Pepper and 7-up, he began to paint and draw. Young men and boys gathered around him and watched. While working he kept his eye on the happenings along busy Monroe Avenue, Montgomery's main passage running through its segregated, all black, south side. Traylor died in 1949. I never heard of him until the mid-1990s when John Knecht (a good friend of mine) bought one of his paintings.

I learned of Andy Warhol much earlier, around 1964, when I was studying mathematics. Before that time it never occurred to me that being an artist could be a profession. I grew up in a working-class family, which owned no art and few books. My main interest then was Number Theory, a field in mathematics driven only by intellectual curiosity with little connection to the realities of science: for example, there is no practical value to the prime numbers. So when Warhol presented the art world with Brillo boxes, they spoke directly to me, and the early criticism that cried "cultural terrorism" brought me even greater appreciation. It was like being able to square the circle, but that's not what I want to write about.

In the summer of 1843, a month after Henry David Thoreau moved into his handmade cabin at Walden Pond, he spent the morning (and much of the afternoon) sitting in his doorway looking out. Only after the sun fell in his west window was he reminded of the lapse of time. Later that year he wrote in Walden, "No method nor discipline can supersede the necessity of being forever on the alert. What is a course of history, or philosophy, or poetry, no matter how well selected, or the best society, or the most admirable routine of life, compared with the discipline of looking at what is to be seen?"

Bill Traylor saw what he looked at. From 1939 to 1942 he made over 2000 paintings and drawings, either from memory or current observation. "I missed plowing so bad today, I just had to draw it," he once said, and from the placement of his images on the page, each always creating a unique negative space with great balance, you could tell he knew the contour of the land he had worked so hard. In three years he created a most sophisticated chronicle, accurately describing his very being.

On January 28, 1964, Andy Warhol moved into his new studio, the Factory, at 231 East 47th Street. The year before he bought a 16mm Bolex camera. Warhol kept the Factory door propped open from the beginning (until Valerie Solanas changed all that.) Anyone could enter. Between 1964 and 1966 he shot 472 one-hundred-foot rolls of black & white 16mm film recording the looks of 189 different people, and the subjects were told as Amy Taubin explained [in : "As soon as you arrived for the first time you had your picture taken and that just involved sitting down in front of a white sheet of paper, very much like in a fashion photography studio, and one Bolex on a tripod and a single light and you sit there for three minutes and you were told to sit as still as possible and you had your portrait done."

These so called portraits became known as the Screen Tests. They of course were not fashion photographs and transcended Warhol's philosophy about such: "Beauties in photographs are different from beauties in person. It must be hard to be a model, because you'd want to be like the photograph of you, and you can't ever look that way." The Screen Tests were lit and framed in a much more interesting and primitive way—sometimes a vertical shadow split the face, or the frame cut away the mouth. And the Screen Tests were films, time based. In the case of one-hundred-foot rolls, 4000 photographs give the illusion of movement over time, an illusion made possible by the retina's persistence of vision and a psychological fooling of the brain called the phi phenomenon.

Each roll was shot at sound speed, 24 frames per second (although no sound was recorded; the Screen Tests are silent), and then projected at silent speed, 16 frames per second, slowing the action by one third, giving it an elusive quality. Each shot only took 3 minutes to film, but takes 4.5 minutes to project. Note the above times were calculated for 108 (rather than 100) feet of film since Warhol didn't remove the extra 8 feet provided for "rollouts." He used the "rollouts" to punctuate the end, to obliterate the image, erasing it from the screen like a disappearing ghost.

A few years before Amy Taubin found herself sitting in front of Warhol's camera, my father purchased our first television, a 20-inch Motorola. I remember watching the local news on Channel Four. The commentator was John Drury. As he finished reading the news, the camera held for over a minute. He just stared into the lens. At first it seemed like nothing was happening, dead air—but it was far from dead. Slowly Drury lost his professional face. He became himself. He looked real.

Screen Tests does the same thing, drawing from observation, obsession, and accumulation. Warhol sums up his New York of the mid 1960s. He filmed his friends, neighbors, and passers through; a few famous, some unknown, and many that would become famous. But for me, I am less interested in celebrity (to which Warhol retreated after he was shot) than the essence revealed regardless of name. It is this ethereal beauty of the self that is most interesting. Which brings me to its main ingredient, duration:

                        expectation is a function of time

                        seeing is a discipline           

                        most of us don't use our time wisely

                        perceived time differs from actual time

                        to pay attention takes practice

                        time will bring new meaning

                        understanding takes time

                        the longer you look the more you see

                        at some point your mind will wander

Last year I finally had the pleasure of watching Yoko Ono and John Lennon's film, Smile (1968). It shows Lennon's face. The film is 52 minutes long, but was shot in less than four seconds using an ultra high speed camera running at 20,000 frames per second. It too is a most revealing portrait. Ono is, and Lennon was, indebted to Warhol, like all of us still working with duration today. Thank you, Andy.

Val Verde, California

August 2008