Andy Warhol 1
Early Minimalist Films
January 26, 2007
Eyedrum, Atlanta, GA
Haircut (No. 1)
(1963), black and white, silent, 18fps, 24
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 moaning...it 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
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
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,
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