The Films of Andy Warhol
E ight hours of footage of the motionless Empire State Building, as seen from the same spot; five hours watching someone sleep; people sitting still; friends hanging out and sharing trivialities in a Manhattan loft.
Would you choose these subjects for a film? Andy Warhol did, and by doing so changed the genre of film and contemporary art forever. These crude synopses of some of American pop artist Andy Warhol's iconic works offer a glimpse of his work in the medium of film.
At first glance, many might seem more like collections of film left on the cutting room floor after an edit – the extras, the moments between takes, superfluities rightly discarded. However, it was precisely the overlooked, everyday, even mundane that Warhol chose to focus on, asserting a sort of star quality for everyday life and in doing so replaying his upending of popular culture, celebrity, and commercial fame in a new medium. Indeed, Warhol's films are as hard to turn away from as the images of fame, celebrity, and glamour which preoccupied the artist through three decades of artistic practice.
The Whitney Museum's upcoming landmark retrospective - Andy Warhol: From A to B and Back Again - offers a perfect opportunity to consider Warhol's approach to celebrity and, in particular, his innovative approach to film. The exhibition as a whole includes over 350 works, including many of his famous silkscreens and portraits on loan from the top museums and private collections around the world; it will also feature an extensive film program, screening short and long-form works throughout the run of the show. Some will be presented as standalone theatrical works in a black box gallery on the 5th floor of the museum; others are installed for drop-in viewing on the 3rd floor.
The loop of shorts on display in the black box gallery include several of Warhol's famous screen tests, as well as some early shorts. Much of the film program takes place in the Whitney's theater, which is set to screen an impressive 34 of Warhol's works through March 2019. Selections include influential works like Empire and Sleep - eight hours long and five hours long respectively. Like the retrospective, this extensive screening program allows visitors to immerse themselves in Warhol's vast oeuvre and range of methods he utilized.
Claire Henry, Assistant Curator at the Whitney Museum of American Art and Curator of the Andy Warhol Film Project, is responsible for the selection and screening venue placement throughout the exhibition. She also broke the Theater portion of the program into thematic sections, which are outlined as: Commercial/Commodity; Minimalism and Seriality; Queer Performativity; Hollywood Stars/Hollywood Types'; "Ladies and Gentlemen": Portraiture in Warhol's Films.
Henry says that, in choosing this broad array of themes, she sought to "make everyone aware of critical themes that map directly onto works in other media." As with the exhibition as a whole, the film program attributes tremendous complexity and a wide range of allusion to Warhol's works. The retrospective, Henry says, seeks to "force a reevaluation" of Warhol's oeuvre; it raises "aspects that people don't know and brings out a more fulsome picture" of Warhol's art. Henry also hopes that the carefully curated presentation of Warhol's films will, quite simply, "surprise people."
On such surprise is the extent to which Warhol's works, over thirty years after his death, remain challenging, radical, relevant and urgent. Donna de Salvo, Senior Curator at the Whitney and an authority on Warhol who curated the retrospective put it as follows:
"His repetitions, distortions, camouflaging, incongruous color, and recycling of his own imagery anticipated the most profound effects and issues of our current digital age, when we no longer know which images to trust. From the 1950s until his death, Warhol challenged our fundamental beliefs, particularly our faith in images, even while he sough to believe in those images himself. Looking in this exhibition at the full sweep of his career makes it clear that Warhol was not just a 20th century titan but a seer of the 21st century as well."
Still today, the films are a crucial part of this radical and prescient body of work. Claire Henry suggests that one of the most revolutionary elements is their use of temporality. For example, in his screen tests, Warhol presents both the sitter and the viewer with an unnatural, uncomfortable situation, in which the sitter is confronted by a camera; for a few minutes, they are the only subject in the frame. The sitters can use that time to do anything they would like. Henry points out that Warhol emphasized this unnatural experience by projecting the film at a slower frame-rate than it was filmed at. Henry explains that this "makes the viewer very aware of their own body because of the retarded temporality of the film. This was very revolutionary." Henry also points out that the Screen Tests, among other films, contradict the idea that Warhol "was cold or detached, which was obviously something he promulgated. It was quite untrue ... the films offer very intimate portraits, stories about moments in people's lives."
The full sweep of Warhol's artistic imagination and accomplishments will become clear over the next few months, as the Whitney opens the exhibition on November 12th and the film program unfolds from November 17th through March 16th, 2019. The Whitney's commitment to producing such a vast undertaking, and the remarkable breadth and depth of Warhol expertise that the curators are bringing to the project, ensure that the exhibition will be a major cultural event of the fall season and certainly have lasting impacts on our understanding of Andy Warhol for years to come. It offers an unprecedented opportunity to reconsider the entirety of Warhol's artistic output, while crucially ensuring that his radical and hugely influential film experiments remain a central part of that reconsideration.
Andy Warhol: From A to B and Back Again is on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art from 12 November 2018 to March 31 2019.