Warhol Films Return to Screen after 20 Years out of Circulation New York Exhibit Looks at Avant-Garde Works as Symbolic of the '60S

By David Sterritt, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, April 4, 1994 | Go to article overview

Warhol Films Return to Screen after 20 Years out of Circulation New York Exhibit Looks at Avant-Garde Works as Symbolic of the '60S


David Sterritt, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


ON any list of movies that are talked about more often than they're seen, Andy Warhol's legendary "Empire" surely rates a top position. Produced in 1964, it consists of a single shot of the Empire State Building - filling the screen for a full eight hours as its 10 reels of 16-mm film creep through the projector at slow-motion speed.

Not surprisingly, "Empire" has rarely been shown in its entirety; its last New York screenings were more than two decades ago - and few people have actually viewed it. Now the Whitney Museum of American Art is filling this gap with four showings of the movie in an exhibition called "The Films of Andy Warhol: Part II."

And if a day of "Empire" merely whets the appetite of die-hard Warhol admirers, they can drop by for other programs and catch more other neglected classics, including the comparatively brief "Sleep," a movie of a sleeping man that lasts a mere five hours and 21 minutes. Warhol's movies aren't all so limited in their content and unblinking in their gaze, any more than his painting was restricted to the soup cans and Brillo boxes that put him and Pop Art on the map. After the minimalism of his early film career, which began with "Sleep" in 1963 and ended shortly after "Empire" the following year, Warhol worked through a string of different styles and subjects.

The results range from campy portrait films like "Lupe" and "Bufferin" to spaced-out sexploitation pictures such as "Bike Boy" and "I a Man," and finally to relatively conventional (if doggedly outrageous) story films directed by collaborators with slightly more realistic notions of box-office appeal. While these and other Warhol movies are wildly uneven in quality, the best of them rank with the most important avant-garde films of the past 25 years. What distinguishes them is the audacity of their ideas - few artists have so profoundly questioned the basic assumptions that underlie our conceptions of cinema - and the over-the-top zealousness of their execution.

Many of Warhol's most celebrated films, including such key efforts as the surrealistic "Vinyl" and the two-screen movie "Chelsea Girls," were shown at the Whitney in its previous Warhol program a few seasons ago. Like that event, the new exhibition marks the completion of another phase in conservation activities by the Whitney and the Museum of Modern Art, which have undertaken the task of preserving all of Warhol's major films and making them available for the first time since 1972, when they were taken out of public circulation.

Callie Angell, the Whitney curator who organized the current series, finds numerous areas of interest in Warhol's cinema. These include the sociological value of his films, as documents of attitudes and living styles that flourished on the cultural margins during the 1960s, and the influence they have exerted on later filmmakers with experimental tastes. …

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