Douglas Crimp

Left: Cover of “Our Kind of Movie”: The Films of Andy Warhol (2012). Right: Douglas Crimp in his office at the Guggenheim Museum with a poster of Ultra Violet, ca. 1970.

Curator and critic Douglas Crimp is a professor of art history at the University of Rochester. His latest book, “Our Kind of Movie”: The Films of Andy Warhol, which has just been published by MIT Press, is a collection of essays about Andy Warhol’s films, and the first book-length study of Warhol’s cinematic corpus since the artist pulled his movies from distribution in the early 1970s. Here Crimp explains how Warhol’s films show us a different side of Warhol, and addresses the works’ relationship to queer culture. On April 2 at 7 PM, The Kitchen will present an evening of readings and screenings related to the book.

THROUGHOUT THE PERIOD that I was chiefly writing about AIDS and queer politics—between the special issue of October on AIDS in 1987 and the completion of my book Melancholia and Moralism in 2001—I was toying with the idea of writing a memoir of New York in the 1970s, encouraged by younger friends in the AIDS movement who felt that the radical queer culture prior to the onset of AIDS was being eclipsed by a reactionary “gay-liberation-led-to-AIDS” narrative. I arrived in New York in 1967, two years before the Stonewall rebellion, and the first queer culture I participated in was the one I found in the back room of Max’s Kansas City, the one made up of the Factory crowd and people from the Play-House of the Ridiculous. So I thought of beginning the memoir with a sort of archaeology of that world through interpretations of artworks, pieces by a range of underground filmmakers and playwrights. I began with Warhol’s Blow Job, for no other reason than that it is a work I love, and I quickly realized that his films would be my sole subject. I watched a number of them to write the essay; I immediately felt like I had found a queer treasure trove.

Warhol never pretended that he was the sole author of his work; on the contrary, he insisted that he adopted others’ ideas, depended on others’ talent, made his work in the company of others—hence the our of “Our Kind of Movie.” His engagement with a wide array of people has been, I think, too simply characterized as exploitative. Certainly Warhol could be exploitative, but he was also genuinely open to and interested in others. One of my chapters, “Coming Together to Stay Apart,” is about Warhol’s collaboration with Theatre of the Ridiculous playwright Ronald Tavel, who wrote the scenarios for a number of Warhol’s films in 1965–66, among them Screen Test No. 2, The Life of Juanita Castro, Horse, Kitchen, Vinyl, and Hedy. These are among Warhol’s best-known and most acclaimed films, and yet many people have never heard of Tavel. One of my goals is to recuperate the importance of Tavel’s participation, but more important, I contend that the quality of these films is a result of Warhol and Tavel deliberately working at cross-purposes, which allows both of them to be present simultaneously in the films, “misfitting together.”

Warhol always talked about being interested in “the kids,” what “the kids” were doing. He seems not to have been particularly interested in predecessors. There are a couple of exceptions: Duchamp, Dalí. Paul Swan is one of the very few old people in Warhol’s films, and I think it was Swan’s odd defiance of his actual old age that intrigued Warhol. An eighty-two-year-old who is happy to appear on camera in a G-string makes for a pretty good subject. Of course, it’s impossible to define Warhol’s aesthetic because it kept shifting. Between an early silent film such as Blow Job, which is a static close-up of a face for some forty minutes, and a sound film like Hedy, where Warhol’s camera hardly ever stops moving; between a simple conceptual idea like filming the Empire State Building from dusk until 2 AM and a complex experiment like the twelve-reel, double-screen, multiple-story, black-and-white and color Chelsea Girls, it’s hard to find a single aesthetic impulse except that of experimentation. Yes, the films tell a different story than do the classic Pop paintings, but by now this should hardly surprise us. The “Ladies and Gentlemen” paintings and prints tell yet another story, as does a, A Novel, or the 1950s shoe portraits, or the collection of photographs of cocks. Warhol was a protean artist—in filmmaking alone he was a protean artist.

I am as interested in the queerness of Warhol’s formal experimentation as I am in the queerness of the social world he represented—or rather I should say that, for me, a queer social world comes into view as a result of Warhol’s formal experimentation. I began this book because I wanted to combat the conservative turn in gay politics by returning to the radically queer culture I “grew up” in at the end of the 1960s. That conservative turn has in the meantime completely eclipsed the idea of queerness, if by queerness we mean new forms of relationality. I’m sure marriage is not what Warhol meant by “misfitting together.” The conservative turn began quite explicitly as a repudiation of sexual liberation and queer theory. “Our Kind of Movie” grows out of my involvement with queer theory, but it also returns me to a primary focus on aesthetics. From the essay on Blow Job forward, I have sought to show the relationship between queer ethics and queer aesthetics.