On a recent trip to New York, I had the good fortune to catch Chasing Andy Warhol, an outdoor theater experience on the streets of the East Village. Staged by the Bated Breath company, the play uses immersive narration, dance, music, and a good deal of visual poetry and humor to explore Warhol’s life, work, and public-facing persona. What counts as art? As meaningful? How much of the “real” Andy was left at the end, and to what extent did he himself become the kind of consumer object that Pop Art once criticized? It was a fascinating and fun little tour through Warhol’s history and psyche, underscored by the displacement of wandering the neighborhood. (The final showings are on Sunday, July 31, so if you’re in New York, plan accordingly.)
In the week before the trip, I prepared by thumbing through Warhol, Blake Gopnik’s 900-page biography published in 2020. Warhol produced more work than I’d ever realized, particularly in film. I knew about Empire, but he had more than 500 other films (the count might include the 440-plus Screen Tests, which are three minutes apiece).
Empire, filmed in 1964, is an eight-hour film of the Empire State Building at sunset. The “action” consists of the sun going down and the tower’s floodlights coming up. The camera never moves. I’m never going to watch all of Empire, but the concept of a large space where seemingly nothing happens, where the endurance is the story — I’m immediately drawn to parallels in music.
Gopnik writes that Warhol was intrigued by the long-drone electronic works of LaMonte Young, that experience of being lost in an expanse. John Cage was in the public consciousness and crossed Warhol’s path socially, multiple times. I suppose there could be a 4:33 quality to Empire, where your own surroundings define the experience — but I don’t think that was Warhol’s intention.
For me, arriving decades later, the obvious touch point is classical minimalism. Einstein on the Beach and even Morton Feldman’s String Quartet No. 2 hadn’t come into being yet, but the seeds must have been in the air in the early ’60s.
In that way, Warhol’s film mirrors takes a cue from experimental music. It felt rewarding to discover that.
But his films also show why not all experiments succeed.
Warhol’s later films strike me as sloppy and downright careless. The cast are hangers-on at The Factory (i.e., non-professionals and barely-professionals), often clumsily filmed. Warhol also experimented with multi-screen films — playing two not-necessarily-related things on adjacent screens and letting the film operator show reels in random order. I can understand why the concept had appeal. It’s worth trying once. But the results are unbearable. His celebrated film The Chelsea Girls amounts to found footage of Factory regulars hanging out — except, they’re all painfully aware that they’re on camera. (Here, have a look at archive.org.) Gopnik calls it “murderously difficult,” and he’s right.
(Of course, my family thinks the music I listen to is “murderously difficult,” so there’s that. They enjoyed Chasing Andy Warhol, by the way.)
I enjoy elements of randomness in art, but Warhol’s “uncontrolled actuality” leaves too much to chance. The difference, I would argue, is ego versus collective intent.
The Factory actors were a self-centered bunch, and Warhol intentionally didn’t tell them his goals for any given film. (It’s possible there often weren’t any.) So, their own spontaneous ideas would would rule the day. You can say that’s also true of freely improvised music, but an improv ensemble is built around a giving spirit. Everybody is contributing to a greater whole. I don’t see that spirit in Warhol’s films, and I don’t sense it in Gopnik’s description of Warhol’s scene, nor in Warhol himself. There’s too much ego on both sides of the camera.
Now, there’s evidence that Warhol did try. A fascinating 2021 lecture at The Whitney Museum doesn’t shy away from Warhol’s missteps and his shortcomings as a filmmaker, but it also emphasizes that he did not just point the camera and walk away. Outtakes do exist — here’s a keen explanation of one — indicating that Warhol, an amateur in this milieu, had ideas and was striving to educate himself. In that way, the films are a useful window into his artistic mind. But there’s also a level of intentional carelessness, echoing Warhol’s assertion that “everything” can be considered art. I can’t agree with him.
So, is there a “there” there? It’s the same question provoked by the Campbell’s Soup paintings in 1962. Gopnik’s book gave me a new appreciation of that work, by the way. The paintings are portraits, as Warhol said, and they represent an obsession with repetition that, again, makes me think Warhol would later appreciate classical minimalism. They’re also more painstakingly precise than I realized. I’m reminded of Blue, the note-for-note reproduction of Kind of Blue by Mostly Other People Do the Killing. I think the Soup paintings open up healthy questions about what constitutes art and meaning. I’m inclined to say that isn’t true of The Chelsea Girls, but then again, I wrote about those exact questions just a few paragraphs ago. In that sense, the film succeeded — but was it because of the end product, or only because of who made it?
That spiral of thinking is Warhol’s legacy. You could play those mind games with any moment in modern art, but for laypeople like me, Warhol’s work and notoriety get the process started. Andy is the labyrinth’s doorman.