Andy Warhol 1
Early Minimalist Films
January 26, 2007
Eyedrum, Atlanta, GA

Haircut (No. 1) (1963), black and white, silent, 18fps, 24 minutes
Four of Andy Warhol's Most Beautiful Women (1964-1969), black and white, silent, 18fps, 16 minutes
Eat (1964), black and white, silent, 18fps, 35 minutes

Andy Warhol first established himself as a leading commercial artist in 1950s Manhattan, then in 1962 made an unlikely leap to fine art gallery shows. With their glossy silkscreened surfaces, cartoonish colors, and endless repetitions, his paintings of soup cans, movie stars, and other consumer items became synonymous with the new "pop art." Warhol was fast becoming a household name and one of the world's most famous and controversial painters. In January 1964, he moved his studio to 231 East 47th Street, a former hat factory. He asked a new acquaintance, Billy Linich, to paint the factory silver, just like Linich's apartment. Billy moved into the space and started bringing his friends over. The Silver Factory was born.

Somehow, Warhol had gotten interested in making movies. He had been attending the midnight screenings of underground films organized by Jonas Mekas and others. Jack Smith was a particular inspiration. In mid-1963, he purchased his own movie camera. By early 1964, filmmaking had become his primary artistic activity, and, despite occasional gallery shows, it would continue to be so until Valerie Solanas attempted to assassinate him in June 1968.

After a few early experiments, Warhol established his ultra-simplified filmmaking technique, and it rarely varied through his career. The Bolex camera he used for his first, silent films took 100-foot reels (each lasting about three minutes of screen time). He would set up the camera, point it toward a person or action, start the motor, and let it run until the end of the reel. Longer films were made by stringing together these shorter reels. Editing - if there was any - was done in-camera, by turning off the motor. This strategy tended to dominate his filmmaking even after he acquired an Auricon camera capable of recording sound and handling much longer reels. Imperfections such as perforations in the filmstrip, light flares, end-of-reel fades and other visual phenomena stayed in the film when they occurred.

Flowing naturally from this aesthetic was Warhol's decision to project the films at silent speed (16 frames per second, or 1/3 slower than normal speed). This slows the action slightly, causes a slight flicker effect, and most importantly, significantly increases the duration of the film. This gesture, while ironic in the context of the widespread amphetamine use at the Factory, seems to have made the movies more enjoyable for Warhol himself to watch. Ronald Tavel described Warhol watching his films:

...he would sit wrapped up with his legs crossed. And like a little child: just perfectly content. It wasn't a look of rapture so much as a perfect contentment that could just go on, and, I realized, could go on for hours and hours like that unless he was interrupted.

Within Warhol's technical limitations and simple aesthetic, significant and rapid development took place between late 1963 and mid-1964. Warhol's films became more minimal. Gradually, he eliminated different camera angles, depth of field, mise en scène, and finally light itself, culminating in the famous eight-hour unmoving portrait of the Empire State Building at night. (For most of this film, only the building's floodlights are visible, and the final reels take place in almost complete darkness.) And from Haircut through Empire, this reduction of the filmic image is paradoxically accompanied by a steady increase in the length of the films.

The art critic Dave Hickey memorably described his life-changing experience of seeing Haircut (by description, a different version than in tonight's screening) at the University of Texas in Austin in the mid-60s:

We couldn't fucking believe it. This was really boring. Mesmerizing too, of course, but not mesmerizing enough to keep us from went on and on...Then it happened. The guy getting the haircut reached into his shirt pocket, pulled out a pack of cigarettes and casually lit one up! Major action! Applause. Tumultuous joy and release!...I remember every instant of Henry lighting up that cigarette and the laughter I could not suppress. Because it was fun, and amazing to realize how seriously you had been fucked with. The haircut continued at that point...but we were alive now.

The impact of these films was immediate - P. Adams Sitney described them as a "shock-blow to the aesthetics of the avant-garde." Other filmmakers were as scandalized as the press and audiences were. The utter simplicity of the conceit translated well to the realm of succès de scandale, and word spread rapidly, if inaccurately, of things like "eight hours of a man sleeping onscreen." Warhol had managed, yet again, to combine maximum publicity with maximum influence on the art world.

Haircut (No. 1) was most likely filmed in December 1963, very shortly after Warhol met Linich (later Billy Name). Linich's apartment at 272 East Seventh Street was the site of his haircutting salons, parties centered around an eminently practical purpose. An all-around handy guy, Linich worked as a lighting director for the cutting-edge Judson Dance Company, and his circle included dancers, choreographers, musicians such as La Monte Young, and denizens of the New York underground homosexual amphetamine scene.

The artist Ray Johnson brought Andy Warhol by for one of Linich's parties. Warhol had just begun to make films, and characteristically, he saw potential and acted quickly. In short order, three different haircut films were made. Tonight's screening shows the first one of these to be preserved, known as No. 1 and still the only publicly available of the haircut films.

The six reels of Haircut (No. 1) demonstrate how much more is going on in Warhol's minimalist films than the legends suggest. Each shot in Haircut is taken from a different angle and features striking composition and lighting design by Linich. There is a compelling visual contrast between the tight closeups and depth of the image, and continual visual surprises with each reel change. After an introductory reel, we see Linich giving a haircut to John Daley. Daley is an island of calm, his face a study in solemnity. Linich snips away, with incredible attention to detail.

The main action of the haircut competes with a provocative performance by Freddie Herko, a dancer with the Judson company. Herko hovers enticingly between choreographed simple movements (such as his slow walk away from the camera in the first reel) and provocative gesture (filling and smoking a marijuana pipe). For most of the film he is wearing a cowboy hat and is either shirtless or completely nude. Twice, he suddenly and casually appears in the frame, having been hidden behind Linich. He seems to be in the role of a cool, sexed-up prankster, moving on a nonlinear plane of action compared to the haircut, and continually calling our attention away from it. Sometimes he engages the camera directly, while at other times he seems to interact with Linich and Daley. The resulting tension between the two planes is roughly analogous to the function of plot in a narrative film.

The last reel adds a fourth man (the choreographer John Waring) and contains a sudden and startling switch to handheld camera closeups on the men (a forerunner of the screen tests). The final image is of all four men staring into the camera and rubbing their eyes, as if awaking from sleep.

In early 1964, Warhol began producing what became known as his "screen tests." These were three-minute portrait films of Factory visitors and regulars. Subjects were seated and lit, the camera was pointed at their face in closeup and turned on. Three minutes later the film was done. During this small eternity, subjects would register everything from boredom to charisma, extreme discomfort to indifference, heroic resolve to face down the camera, or an inability to suppress emotion (and giggles). By the end of the project in late 1966, he had shot some 362 different screen tests - not including the over one-hundred rolls he shot of a single man, Philip Fagan. The subjects ranged from Bob Dylan to Lou Reed to Salvador Dalí to Marcel Duchamp, and dozens of lesser-known figures and legends of the underground.

Four of Andy Warhol's Most Beautiful Women is derived from The Thirteen Most Beautiful Women, a revolving collection of screen tests shown publicly (along with its companion, The Thirteen Most Beautiful Boys). Amusingly, Warhol seems to have regularly changed the reels in the Thirteen series, depending on whether some of the screen test subjects would be in the audience or happened to be potential patrons!

The four screen tests shown tonight - of Baby Jane Holzer, Ann Buchanan, Sally Dennison, and Ivy Nicholson - are equally austere. All were made in 1964, against a plain white background. Each subject seems to have been instructed to stay as still as possible and face the camera. Buchanan and Nicholson are struggling heroically not to blink. Buchanan seems to make a game out of it, and is remarkable in her resolve. Eventually, in one of the most celebrated moments in Warhol's films (reportedly greatly admired by Warhol himself), tears begin to stream down her cheeks. Still she does not move or blink. Each reel ends, fading to white, as ephemeral as beauty - or existence - itself.

Eat was made on February 2, 1964, roughly six weeks after Haircut, in the lower Manhattan studio of artist Robert Indiana. In Callie Angell's study of Warhol's films, Indiana recalled that before filming, he starved himself and bought a large selection of fruits and vegetables, only to have Warhol select from the plate a single mushroom and ask Indiana to make it last as long as possible. Biting in small layers, chewing slowly, smelling, or simply experiencing the memory of the taste, Indiana made the mushroom last for nine reels of film, or 27 minutes of screen time (about 40 minutes with the customary silent-speed projection).

The result is an beautifully photographed portrait film of Indiana. With the outdoor light pouring onto him, you can see the texture of his skin. Indiana himself is a most engaging presence, utterly calm and composed while at the same time enjoying a prolonged sensual experience. And a surprise guest from the animal world reminds us of the inadequacy of simplified descriptions of these films ("40 minutes of a guy eating a mushroom!"), exacerbated by their unavailability for over twenty years.

The idea of minimal action stretched to lengthy duration - what the critic Parker Tyler evocatively called "drugtime" - is at the conceptual heart of these films, and is particularly effective in Eat. Short enough to take in at a single sitting, yet lasting well beyond the boredom/irritation threshold of most viewers, Eat works exactly as a session of Zen meditation might, exhausting viewers' mental barriers and defenses in order to open them up to a new level of awareness - the better to enjoy the portrait. ("The haircut continued...but we were alive now.") Like all of Warhol's early minimal film works, Eat is a film about the mind.

By the ninth and final reel, Indiana has finished his mushroom. He closes his eyes, leans back, folds his hands behind his head. The winter light shines through the window onto Indiana, illuminating his neck and face, which in turn appear to us filtered through the grain of the film. It's a riveting, exquisite moment, made more so no doubt by our experience of the thirty-five minutes that precede it. It seems as if Indiana's sleep will end the film, but then he opens his eyes and returns to the world of light. His consciousness continues on, as does ours. The reel fades to white, and the film is over...but we are alive now.

Program notes 2007 Andy Ditzler

Callie Angell. Andy Warhol Screen Tests: The Films of Andy Warhol Catalogue Raisonné Volume 1. Abrams and the Whitney Museum of American Art, 2006
Callie Angell. The Films of Andy Warhol: Part 2. Whitney Museum of American Art, 1994
Dave Hickey. Air Guitar. Art Issues. Press, 1997
Stephen Koch. Stargazer: Andy Warhol's World and His Films, second edition. Marion Boyars, 1985
Jonas Mekas. Movie Journal: The Rise of the New American Cinema 1959-1971. The Macmillan Company, 1972
P. Adams Sitney. Visionary Film: The American Avant-Garde 1943-1978, Second edition. Oxford University Press, 1979
Patrick S. Smith. Andy Warhol's Art and Films. UMI Research Press, 1986
Steven Watson. Factory Made: Warhol and the Sixties. Pantheon Books, 2003

Film Love home page

Frequent Small Meals