Watching a drag queen and a James Dean-looking fella make out over a hamburger while Bradford Cox live-soundtracks it was not quite what I had pictured when I heard about Exposed: Songs for Unseen Warhol Films. The Brooklyn Academy of Music event, which opened Thursday night and runs through Saturday (November 8), seemed like a solution the confusion I had felt while watching Andy Warhol’s short films in isolation at the art icon’s Pittsburgh museum a few years back: I wasn’t sure exactly how to feel about the home movies without musical cues swaying me one way or another. There’s no one way to read Warhol’s work, but with the guidance of five experimental musicians — Cox, Television’s Tom Verlaine, Suicide’s Martin Rev, Eleanor Friedberger, and the program’s musical curator, Dean Wareham — the 15 never-before-seen short films selected for Exposed felt far more powerful than they would have on their own. Created for the Exposed program (which showed in Pittsburgh and Los Angeles last month), these 15 songs each highlight different elements of Warhol’s work, ranging from the vulgarity of both overt sexuality and commercialism to the vulnerability of being on display.
Verlaine began the 75-minute program with the slightest work, which fit the modesty of Warhol’s earliest home movies. The films of Exposed range in subjects, techniques, and settings, starting in 1963 and ranging through 1966; you see Warhol’s ideas grow over this brief time period. Verlaine seemed to respect that he started small with films like “John Washing,” consisting of Warhol’s boyfriend, John Giorno, slowly washing dishes naked in a sun-filled kitchen. A single electric guitar emitted shrill yet warm noises at Verlaine’s hands. He worked within this general theme for the three early films he soundtracked, all of which show Warhol’s friends and loved ones outside of the Factory. Instead, they’re filmed in backyards, which gives these characters added dimension, beyond their reputations as notable artists of the era (Lesbian Nation author Jill Johnston is seen in one, while visual artists Robert Indiana and Marisol Escobar, who shows up again in Exposed, appear together in another).
Suicide’s Martin Rev took a distinctly different route from Verlaine, having a direct and at times humorous dialogue with the messages embedded deep within Warhol’s films. A sample of Kool and the Gang’s “Ladies Night” played while Rev, a synthesizer pioneer who’s now nearly 70, bashed his hands against his keyboard and muttered indiscernible dialogue into the microphone, while on the screen, an all-star cast of male artists including Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac drank beer on one of the Factory’s couches. Harsh noises played while a shirtless, oily boy consumed a Coke. More disco samples followed, highlighting the glamor we can all recognize as part of Warhol’s lifestyle but don’t exactly see in these rudimentary films. It was truly astounding.
Much of Warhol’s work focuses on great muses; in Exposed, we see a few familiar Factory faces from Chelsea Girls and Warhol’s other, better known, short films like Kiss, Eat, Sleep, and Blow Job. Honoring the muse seemed to inspire former Fiery Furnaces singer Eleanor Friedberger in very tangible ways. She tackled two never-before-seen Warhol screen tests — an early one of Warhol’s most iconic muse, Edie Sedgwick, and a 1966 clip of Scottish singer-songwriter Donovan during his first trip to New York City — with jangly ’60s pop songs that highlighted both the discomfort of posing for the cameras and the Warhol Screen Test’s status as a rite of passage among a certain class of creators. “Marisol — Stop Motion” captures its namesake sculptor posing among her work, so Friedberger accompanied it with lyrics pulled from a 1960s New York Times feature on her.
Friedberger’s sounds paired with Warhol’s images in specific ways, which I found less true of Galaxie 500 and Luna founder Dean Wareham’s Velvet Underground-esque soundscapes. Wareham’s soundtracks seemed more about capturing the spirit of the Factory and Warhol’s taste in art-rock. This lent a certain historical accuracy to films like “Nico/Antoine,” which features another one of Warhol’s most famous Factory girls eating a banana alongside French singer-songwriter Pierre Antoine Muraccioli. Overall, Wareham’s contributions were the least innovative of the group, though he must be applauded for putting together such a strong showcase of artists.
Cox ended the program with three of the most compelling films shown: “Screen Test: Marcel Duchamp and Benedetta Barzini,” “Mario Montez and Boy” (the aforementioned hamburger makeout), and “Me and Taylor,” featuring Warhol favorite Taylor Mead. The Deerhunter and Atlas Sound leader offered up ambient noise soundscapes that bubbled and ticked with a sense of opulence and underlying weirdness, highlighting the Odd Couple feeling the permeates Dadaist great Duchamp’s cigar-smoke-filled screen test with an Italian supermodel. I walked away unable to forget what I had seen and how Cox’s soundtrack had amplified my emotions, but I couldn’t remember what the songs had specifically sounded like. To elevate something as simple as a four-minute, black-and-white home movie with a custom soundtrack not only gives it importance — it’s something Warhol, a curatorial force in rock ‘n’ roll’s ’60s heyday, would have appreciated.