Warhol’s Underground Film Finds Mainstream Audience

The Chelsea Girls, directed by avant-garde artist Andy Warhol, became the first underground film to play a long run in commercial theaters in Manhattan and eventually was distributed nationwide.

Summary of Event

On September 15, 1966, Andy Warhol premiered his film The Chelsea Girls at the Film-Maker’s Co-operative’s Film-Maker’s Co-operative[Film Makers Cooperative] Cinematheque theater in Manhattan. This film had been shot during the previous summer at various locations in the city. The film lasted about three hours and consisted of segments approximately thirty-five minutes long, as that was how much film fit inside a film camera magazine. Each of the segments featured “Super Stars” “Super Stars”[Super Stars] regularly seen in Warhol’s films, such as the Duchess, Duchess, the Hanoi Hanna Hanoi Hanna , Pope Ondine Ondine, Pope , and International Velvet International Velvet . The film was loosely constructed to show the different people one might find living at the downtown Chelsea Hotel, where many of the regulars who hung out at Warhol’s studio, the Factory, Factory, the (art studio) actually lived. After hotel management threatened to sue, however, references to the hotel were omitted from the billing. Chelsea Girls, The (Warhol)
Cinema;avant-garde[avant garde]
United States;counterculture
[kw]Warhol’s Underground Film The Chelsea Girls Finds Mainstream Audience (Sept. 15, 1966)[Warhols Underground Film The Chelsea Girls Finds Mainstream Audience]
[kw]Underground Film The Chelsea Girls Finds Mainstream Audience, Warhol’s (Sept. 15, 1966)
[kw]Film The Chelsea Girls Finds Mainstream Audience, Warhol’s Underground (Sept. 15, 1966)
[kw]Chelsea Girls Finds Mainstream Audience, Warhol’s Underground Film The (Sept. 15, 1966)
Chelsea Girls, The (Warhol)
Cinema;avant-garde[avant garde]
United States;counterculture
[g]North America;Sept. 15, 1966: Warhol’s Underground Film The Chelsea Girls Finds Mainstream Audience[08950]
[g]United States;Sept. 15, 1966: Warhol’s Underground Film The Chelsea Girls Finds Mainstream Audience[08950]
[c]Motion pictures and video;Sept. 15, 1966: Warhol’s Underground Film The Chelsea Girls Finds Mainstream Audience[08950]
Warhol, Andy
de Antonio, Emile
Mekas, Jonas

Prior to his filming of The Chelsea Girls, Warhol had experimented with popular music and supported a rock group called the Velvet Underground Velvet Underground . To provide a place for them to perform, he rented a dance hall for a short time and had its walls painted white. While the band sang, Warhol experimented, creating different visual effects incorporated into the Exploding Plastic Inevitable Exploding Plastic Inevitable (mixed-media performance) media show. Acting as the projectionist, he showed his films side by side and explored the effect this created. This work predated the mixed-media shows held by Timothy Leary but was very similar to the techniques used by Leary to simulate an LSD trip. This visual technique was the one Warhol used when screening The Chelsea Girls.

Rather than stringing the segments together one after another, Warhol chose to project two segments side by side. The segment on the right side of the screen was traditionally begun five minutes before the one on the left. Some segments were in black and white; some were in color. Some had sound and some did not. Each segment was a separate unit, or episode, and its companion did not continue or further illuminate its action.

The effect was startling. Warhol had destroyed the narrative, or the story line, in this film. He also disregarded the concept of filmic time, instead thrusting the visual and sensorial possibilities of the medium to the foreground. The Chelsea Girls shocked the senses of its viewers. It further disoriented them by not focusing their attention on what was meant to be important. Warhol’s work was an interactive piece. For a viewer to concentrate on one thing, he or she had to forgo concentrating on something else. In this way, each individual in the audience chose a different experience and, in effect, saw his or her own movie.

As a major pop artist, Warhol received notice for his earlier films in the relatively small worlds of the visual arts and of independent film. Following the release of The Chelsea Girls, mainstream media started to take notice of the impact Warhol might have on film. Jack Kroll wrote a long review of The Chelsea Girls for the magazine Newsweek, and Bosley Crowther wrote a review of it for The New York Times. Other reviewers and critics followed suit. Media coverage generated enough popular interest in the film to move it to a commercial theater farther uptown.

Many critics and reviewers who were trained to focus on the narrative in film were outraged by The Chelsea Girls. Not only was it nonnarrative, it also was not conventionally entertaining, thus violating two prerequisites for commercial films. Many reviewers focused on the content of specific segments and saw only the sordidness of the characters. They objected that homosexuality, sadomasochism, drug abuse, and nudity were too objectionable to be subjects for film investigation. Others, missing the point completely, complained that there was no definitive order in which the segments were shown.

Lacking specific directions, projectionists were able to improvise, showing the segments in any order they chose, though the film usually began and ended the same way. Reviewers never knew if they were reviewing the same film that their colleagues had seen and so had difficulty entering into dialogue with one another. As Warhol himself wrote, however, “any publicity was good publicity.” As the film finished its run at one commercial theater it would begin a run at another, and then another, with people standing in long lines waiting to buy their tickets. Warhol split the net profits evenly with the Film-Maker’s Distribution Center Film-Maker’s Distribution Center[Film Makers Distribution Center”>De Antonio, Emile , headed by Jonas Mekas.

The Chelsea Girls was the first underground film ever to play a long run in Manhattan. It was so successful that the Art Theater Guild arranged with the Film-Maker’s Distribution Center to distribute it nationwide. Warhol, however, did not know for certain what he had done in The Chelsea Girls to make it so popular. For all he knew, viewers could have been attracted to it mainly for the nudity rather than for any great appreciation of its artistry. Still, it was the best known and the most often seen of Warhol’s films.

Film critic Vincent Canby of The New York Times compared The Chelsea Girls with Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up
Blow-Up (Antonioni)[Blow Up (Antonioni)] (1966), which, like The Chelsea Girls, eventually became an important influence on commercial films. Blow-Up had been financed by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM), which had formed a subsidiary company to release it, and Hollywood was just getting ready to shoot Midnight Cowboy (1969), a film very close in theme to Warhol’s earlier production My Hustler (1965). What everyone wondered was whether Warhol would also get financing from a major studio and break into the business of commercial film.


The Chelsea Girls marked a turning point in Warhol’s career as a pop artist. It was also a turning point for American film, which had been floundering because of the popularity of television. A limbo existed in Hollywood, with executives not understanding the American film audience, especially the lives and tastes of American youth. The studios spent millions of dollars on more and more lavish (and perhaps tedious and boring) spectacles, featuring aging stars to whom young people could not relate. It became increasingly difficult for such films to break even at the box office.

Warhol’s use of the medium of film was not inconsistent with the pop Pop art philosophy that everyone could do everything. In his career as an artist, Warhol had easily moved between illustration, painting, and silk-screen techniques. At first, film was just another medium in which he could do his work. He did not believe that work in the medium had to follow strict conventions. Especially to American youth, who had started to look at Warhol as a hero of the counterculture, Warhol’s involvement with the medium reawakened the idea that American film could be art and not just lavish commercial enterprise. Warhol made going to films chic for some and “groovy” for others, depending on their age and vernacular. In The Chelsea Girls, there was subject matter to be viewed that never could be shown on television.

Warhol first gained notice as a commercial artist working as an illustrator for major women’s magazines such as McCall’s, Ladies’ Home Journal, and Glamour, at a time when the fashion world was starting to take a serious interest in fine art. Paintings by Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning were used as backdrops for models and fashions. Artists were profiled in articles, and fashion photography became an art form in itself. Some artists found jobs as window designers for New York’s large department stores. Warhol’s agent, Emile de Antonio, encouraged him to start painting on canvas, frequently critiquing his early work. With de Antonio’s encouragement, Warhol painted his first Coke bottles, which de Antonio and others found to be a strong symbol for American society.

By the time Warhol had his first New York show, at Eleanor Ward’s Ward, Eleanor Stable Gallery in November, 1962, movie cameras had become affordable. De Antonio was also a filmmaker and on the board of directors of the New American Cinema Group, started by Jonas Mekas to help finance and distribute independently made movies. Warhol accompanied his mentor to the Film-Maker’s Co-operative to view underground films.

Movie cameras were also rampant at Eleanor Ward’s seashore property, where Warhol spent some of the summer following his show in her gallery. It was there that Jack Smith Smith, Jack , an underground filmmaker and actor, worked on his creation Normal Love. Normal Love (Smith) Warhol watched Smith work and noticed how he continued shooting even after the actors got bored. This fascinated Warhol, who found it different from what he saw in commercial films, which had become so polished that they lacked all mystery, or in cinéma vérité, in which filmmakers self-consciously tried to capture real life. This bored time actually was real life and expressed themes similar to those of Warhol’s pop art paintings and silk screens.

In 1963, Warhol bought a sixteen-millimeter camera. He also moved into the studio space that became known as “the Factory.” In the spirit of the times, the doors to the Factory were always left open to anyone who wandered in, including dancers, artists, writers, poets, bohemian types, gay hustlers, aspiring actresses, and drug users. Some of these people were crazy or were made crazy by abusing drugs, but Warhol did not mind and admitted that he found creative inspiration in the insanity that surrounded him.

In 1964, Warhol purchased a better camera and was able to film with sound. More and more, the personalities of his “Super Stars” took over as subject matter for his films. This was consistent with his philosophy of pop and artist Marcel Duchamp’s influential idea of “readymade” art. With inclusion of sound, there was more pressure on Warhol to come up with a script. Warhol kept scripting to a minimum, encouraging the “real” people to emerge improvisationally. Warhol gave the actors a situation, or “incident” as he called it, and then left them on their own.

Warhol also worked from a stationary camera and shot continuously until he ran out of film, no matter what the actors did, although he admitted that at some times he was so upset with the action that he had to leave the room, camera still filming. In this way, his work resembled portraiture more than it did film, in which script traditionally determines the personalities of the actors, and camera angles and camera work help establish the viewer’s feelings or mood.

Negative reviewers accused Warhol of being a voyeur, of focusing his camera on people and situations that were raw and crude. Traditionally, however, artists have captured intimate moments that have titillated and moved their viewers. Warhol’s “Super Stars” actually were often raw and crude, appearing to be individuals with very real problems. Setting this in motion and with sound, bigger than life, was more than some people’s senses could take. Part of the problem was that Warhol saw his films as art and did not intend for viewers to sit through entire screenings but rather, in the manner of museumgoers, to wander in and out at will. When an audience paid to sit and view something, it actually sat and watched and listened to it all. It was unfortunate but not surprising that Warhol’s material offended many people who were never able to see his body of work in any other light.

After the financial success of The Chelsea Girls, Warhol attracted more entrepreneurs to his filmmaking endeavors. They encouraged him to move away from the experimental or art component of his work and move in the direction of voyeurism and the pornographic, with the idea that this was what the American viewer wanted. The popularity of the film could be interpreted as showing the artistic credibility of pornography and sadomasochism. This focus on unusual sexuality alienated some but inspired many others, presaging a battle in American art over sexual politics and policies.

Warhol continued to shoot his artistic piece ;;;;Four Stars
;;;;Four Stars (Warhol)[Four Stars (Warhol)] (1967), which took more than a day to screen and contained sections in which images were superimposed on one another on a single screen. More and more, Warhol gave up his artistic experimentation, wanting instead to make films that regular theaters would want to show. Unfortunately, Hollywood backing never materialized. Instead, Warhol saw the commercial film industry move into the underground filmmaker’s territory, using its subject matter—counterculture, realistic scenes of life, formerly forbidden subjects of sexuality and drugs—and giving it a slick commercial treatment. Warhol saw actors Dustin Hoffman and John Voight play the Hollywood equivalent of hustlers in Midnight Cowboy (1969). He realized that without financial backing and good technicians, he could not compete. After he was shot and critically wounded in 1968 by a woman who claimed he had stolen her script, his interest in the production of film declined dramatically. Chelsea Girls, The (Warhol)
Cinema;avant-garde[avant garde]
United States;counterculture

Further Reading

  • Biesenbach, Klaus, ed. Andy Warhol: Motion Pictures. New York: D.A.P., 2004. Published in conjunction with a 2004 exhibition of Warhol’s films in Berlin. Includes critical essays, as well as images from screen tests and Warhol’s silent films. Bibliographic references and filmography.
  • Coplans, John. Andy Warhol. Greenwich, Conn.: New York Graphic Society, 1990. An oversized collection of three essays written about the artist. Contains many black-and-white reproductions of Warhol’s two-dimensional work as well as a filmography of Warhol’s work prepared by Jonas Mekas, founder of the Film-Maker’s Co-operative, where most of the films were screened.
  • Gidal, Peter. Andy Warhol: Films and Paintings. 1971. Reprint. New York: Da Capo Press, 1991. An unabridged reprint containing black-and-white photos of Warhol’s paintings and silk screens, as well as wonderful stills from many of his early films.
  • Koch, Stephen. Stargazer. New York: Praeger, 1973. An early attempt to understand this pop artist. One gets the sense that the author was excluded from Warhol’s inner circle of friends, and insecurity shows sometimes in the text.
  • Shanes, Eric. Warhol: The Life and Masterworks. 3d rev. ed. New York: Parkstone, 2004. Combined biography and critical study of Warhol’s multifarious oeuvre.
  • Warhol, Andy. America. New York: Harper & Row, 1985. An oversized book filled with photographs and prose created by the artist. Quick and easy to read, it nevertheless provides a glance inside this enigmatic trendsetter.
  • _______. The Philosophy of Andy Warhol: From A to B and Back Again. San Diego, Calif.: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1975. Warhol expounds on his theory of nothingness. The views might not have been worthy of publication had they not come from this cultural icon. Offers Warhol’s interpretations of himself and of his work.
  • Warhol, Andy, and Pat Hackett. POPism: The Warhol ’60s. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1980. Warhol speaks believably in the pages of this almost unillustrated book, offering insight into his roles and actions during his years at the Factory.

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