A still from Andy Warhol’s Empire. (Image courtesy of MoMA. © 2011 Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.)
Last month, when Liz Arnold (the damsel behind @WNYCculture) and I spent the day live Tweeting all eight hours of Andy Warhol’s static shot of the Empire State Building at the Museum of Modern Art, a number of folks brought up the issue of the film’s quality. Though originally shot on 16mm film, Empire was being shown as a digital transfer (as was the rest of the Andy Warhol: Motion Pictures exhibit — except for a single screen test, featuring Ethel Scull). Now, I’m no film geek (I know more about rainforest ecosystems than I do about film), but the picture did look pretty darn blurry in a non-16mm kind of way, and if you sat in the front rows, you could literally see the pixels.
Which is why I read Amy Taubin’s review of the exhibit in the March issue of Artforum with great interest. (Yes, I was reading Artforum. It was a moment of weakness.) In it, she addresses the poor quality of the transfers and asks the very good question, “What, in fact, is being shown?” After poking around, this is what she came up with:
MoMA then referred me to the source of those transfers, the Warhol Museum, and I discovered that the latter had relied on one-inch and Betacam SP tape ‘masters’ made from the 16mm films. These crude, outdated analog video formats were used as the intermediates for the digital files…
In other words, what we were gazing on at MoMA wasn’t just a copy — but a copy of a copy. (Crazy!) Or as Taubin puts it: “garbage in, garbage out.” For the record: I verified this directly with a spokesperson from the Warhol Museum — who also told me that the 16mm-to-Beta transfer took place back in the ’90s. In other words, for eight hours, we stared at a copy of an old copy.
So, there you go, film nerds: question answered. And if you happen to be within reaching distance of the March Artforum, you’ll find Taubin’s worthwhile (if nuclear) review on p. 260.
Andy Warhol: Motion Pictures is up at the Museum of Modern Art through Monday.