When pop art icon Andy Warhol filmed nearly 500 screen tests in the Factory — his avant-garde, amphetamine-fueled Manhattan studio between 1964 and 1966 — it’s unlikely he envisioned that nearly 50 years later, taxpayer dollars would support bringing those short, silent films to the National Gallery of Art. But there they were on Saturday afternoon, displayed on the big screen in the packed East Wing auditorium.
“13 Most Beautiful . . . Songs for Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests” combined a baker’s dozen of the roughly four-minute, black-and-white moving portraits with a live soundtrack provided by dream-pop group Dean & Britta. Commissioned for the project in 2008 by the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, the duo sifted through the possibilities before deciding on 13 subjects and composing a song to fit each one. Their choices focused on Factory regulars rather than celebrities, the eager, vulnerable and artistic youth who saw Warhol as a father figure.
Singer-guitarist Dean Wareham and bassist-keyboardist Britta Phillips ceded the spotlight to the hypnotic films while adding crucial atmospherics. During “Ann Buchanan Theme,” the group played a gentle instrumental — lightly strummed electric guitar, soft keyboard chirps — as Buchanan stared out from the screen. When tears started to stream down her face, Wareham delivered one of his elegant solos, the kind he perfected as leader of indie-rock groups Galaxie 500 and Luna.
Those groups were heavily influenced by the Velvet Underground, the de facto house band of the Factory. Velvet frontman Lou Reed donned black shades and chugged from a glass Coke bottle during his screen test as the band played “Not a Young Man Anymore.”
Nico, the German model-singer who was featured on the Velvets’ Warhol-produced debut, seemed restless during her screen test, ducking out of view of the camera and reading a magazine. Her song was the lone cover, “I’ll Keep It With Mine,” a Bob Dylan-penned folk-pop gem and an ideal showcase for Phillips’s sweet and slightly disaffected voice.
Between songs, Wareham offered brief history lessons of the subjects, with the most common theme being their sad demises. Freddy Herko leaped to his death in a friend’s apartment; his dark screen test was accompanied by a funereal soundtrack. In just four minutes on-screen, Ingrid Superstar went from radiating young energy to appearing nervous and timid. Twenty years later, she was a heroin addict who went out to buy cigarettes and was never seen again.
It reinforced the idea that the Factory scene was as fleeting as it was vital. With “13 Most Beautiful,” it has received a perfect tribute.