Just the other day, I had a chat with a well-known poet who laid out for me his theory that Andy Warhol invented our conception of modern America. When we think about this country, the poet explained, we think about this country broadly in the way that Warhol (and thus his disciples) envisioned it. We here at Open Culture have covered several of the forms in which the artist promulgated his distinctive brand of Americana, and today, for the 85th anniversary of his birth, we've rounded up a few of his famous "screen tests," the short films he made between 1963 and 1968 that offer portraits of hundreds of figures, famous and otherwise, who happened to pass through his studio/social club/subcultural hot zone, The Factory. Just above, you can watch Warhol's screen test with Nico, the German singer who would become an integral part of the Factory-formed band the Velvet Underground.
Little-heard at the time but ultimately highly influential, the Velvet Underground's sound shaped much American popular music — and given popular music's centrality back then, much of American culture to come. You may not necessarily buy that argument, but surely you can't argue against the influence of a certain singer-songwriter by the name of Bob Dylan, Warhol's screen test with whom appears just above.
Coming from a Polish immigrant family, and seemingly dedicated to the cultivation of his own outsider status his entire life, Warhol understood the importance of foreigners to the vitality of American culture. Naturally, he didn't miss his chance to shoot a screen test with Salvador Dalí, below, when the Spanish surrealist came to the Factory.
See also our previous post on Warhol's screen tests with Lou Reed, Dennis Hopper, Edie Sedgwick, and others. When you've watched them all, consider continuing your celebration of life in Andy Warhol's 85th birthday with the EarthCam and The Warhol Museum's collaboration Figment. It offers live camera feeds of not only his grave but the church where he was baptized. Comparisons to the viewing experience of Empire are encouraged.
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Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes essays on literature, film, cities, Asia, and aesthetics. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall.