September 29, 2011  |  Artists, Collection & Exhibitions, Film
Salvador Dalí Has Left the Building

Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí. Un Chien andalou. 1928. France. 35mm print, black and white, silent, approx. 16 min. Gift of Luis Buñuel

Between 1964 and 1966 Andy Warhol commenced an ambitious project in which he would photograph, using 16mm motion picture film, his Factory superstars, art world luminaries, underground celebrities, fashionistas, rock and roll gods, bold-faced Hollywood names, drag queens, and aimless teenagers who gravitated to the avant garde, Pop art world of New York in the mid-1960s. The project, known as Screen Tests, consisted of 472 short, silent, black-and-white portraits shot on a Bolex movie camera. In the impeccably researched catalogue raisonné Andy Warhol Screen Tests, the late Callie Angell, adjunct curator of the Andy Warhol Film Project at the Whitney Museum of American Art, eloquently describes the “simplicity of the basic Screen Test format,” noting that the “casualness and rapidity with which these films were produced are offset by their conceptual sophistication and by their centrality to Warhol’s work as a portrait artist in the mediums of both film and painting.”

Warhol was a visual huckster who delighted in noodling with images and subverting their meaning and original intention, as well as expanding and reducing the duration of motion pictures and investigating the tension between maximum stillness and kinesis. Angell notes that “given the success of this reversed Duchampian ploy—using a moving picture medium to create a still image,” critics viewing Kiss (1964) believed they were looking at a still photograph until cast member Marisol blinked! The screen test was similarly visually wily but indeed executed with an uncomplicated set of Warhol-authored instructions that were more suitable for an ordinary passport photo than our preconceived notion of the Hollywood screen test:

  • The background should be plain and unadorned.
  • The camera should not move.
  • The subject must be well lit and positioned in the center of the frame.
  • The subject should face forward.
  • The subject should hold as still as possible, refrain from talking, smiling, and blinking.

While the majority of the Screen Test subjects took heed of Warhol’s rules, some did give in to anxiety, dry eyes, or nervous tics. In Screen Test 66 (1964), Walter Dainwood appears to have transported himself into a meditative state until he rolls his eyes and sticks out his tongue. The British singer Donovan, who sat for ST78 (1966), is seated on a couch and does his best to stare down the camera—until he crosses his eyes and waves to someone off camera. It appeared that Taylor Mead, in ST210 (1964), may have been the most mischievous sitter, with his snarling and barking at the camera, blowing kisses, and larger-than-life yawns, but he did stay put and refrain from an excess of physical movement. The subject who completely disregarded Warhol’s instruction was Surrealist artist Salvador Dalí.

Salvador Dalí was the personification of the showmanship and excess identified with Surrealism. Born in 1904 in Figueres, Spain, just months before the opening of the Sala Edison, the first cinema in his hometown, Dalí and other artists such as his collaborator Luis Buñuel regularly integrated the motion picture into their own practices. These artists matured as motion picture technologies developed, thus a cross-fertilization and willing engagement was the norm. Dalí and Buñuel’s own radical contributions to the cinematic avant garde, Un Chien andalou (1929) and L’Age d’or (1930), manipulate time, feature celebrities of the day, and expose the audience to a fresh method of storytelling. The swift trajectory on the art scene and riotous similarity of Dalí’s work to Warhol’s made him a natural subject to sit for a Screen Test in 1966.

Dalí was a New York City cultural fixture in the 1960s. When in town he resided with his wife Gala at the St. Regis Hotel, just a block away from MoMA, and was often seen dashing about from one fabulous appointment to another. Before arriving in New York in 1934, Dalí professed an uncanny familiarity with the city; this was the case as his knowledge of New York was from its numerous cinematic portrayals and not firsthand experience. Dalí sat for two Warhol Screen Tests, both made in 1966. The first (ST67) is often called Upside Down Dalí, as the 3.7-minute short was filmed with the camera upside down. Callie Angell notes he “gives a typically surreal performance” by staring imperiously and playing with a small, sequined evening bag. He even taps the bag against his cheek as if keeping rhythm with some offscreen music.

The second (ST68), at a running time of 3.8, minutes is a radical departure from Upside Down Dalí as well as the 400+ other Screen Tests. Ignoring Warhol’s key rule about holding still, Dalí actually exits the frame! Again with an arrogant stare, Dalí is lit dramatically from below; about halfway through the film there is a sudden strobe effect, (an in-camera edit) and Dalí disappears. The camera continues to roll filming only the now-vacant backdrop. Dalí never returns to the sitting. While Dalí was not the only subject to leave a Screen Test sitting, he was the only sitter to entirely abandon the endeavor. Bob Dylan’s 1966 ST83 shows the singer in close-up, smoking a cigarette; he suddenly stands and leaves the frame, but returns again and sits. Other subjects, such as Nico and Penelope Nicholson, sway in and out of the frame or tilt to one side or another but remain seated. For Dalí this outrageous gesture within the confines of Warhol’s already anomalous cinematic endeavor made it his own surreal performance. Both showmen, Warhol and Dalí shared a mutual curiosity, but one could not take a back seat to the other for the sake of art. In his essay Film as Metaphor in the Dali & Film exhibition catalogue, Fèlix Fanés comments, “Andy Warhol, among others, who, in his cult of superficiality and non-originality saw in Dalí a forerunner of the new taste that arose from the growing mass-consumerism.” Bingo! Warhol and Dalí were indeed kindred spirits, what we’d probably call BFFs today; sassy, shallow, ego-driven, celebrity obsessed, and fond of readymades and disposability.

There remains scholarly speculation that the two Dalí Screen Tests were to be combined to yield a double-screen projection to be used as background during an Exploding Plastic Inevitable (EPI) performance. Even a Warhol-Dalí film project was discussed in 1966, with interested investors willing to contribute significant sums of money. Both projects remain unrealized. Nevertheless, only Salvador Dalí possessed the impudence to abandon an Andy Warhol Screen Test sitting. Presumably Warhol accepted this naughty transgression of the production rules without irritation because he viewed Dalí as both a rival and a teacher.