by Simon Castets
Long before the I ♥ John Giorno rallying cry came to be heard resounding through the cavernous halls of the Palais de Tokyo in Paris, and decades before an array of New York institutions joined forces to amplify these words of devoted affection, John Giorno was on camera, beloved.
Shortly after having met Giorno at the opening of his first solo exhibition at New York’s Stable Gallery, Andy Warhol, taken by the strapping young poet, began working on a series of films scrutinizing the magnetic charm of his new lover. Despite the studied aloofness that Warhol’s work so painstakingly cultivated, regardless of all the affected restraint and detachment, love, indeed, profusely transpires through these filmic and photographic portraits. In bringing these works together at Swiss Institute as part of the parceled-out exhibition, Ugo Rondinone carefully borrows and displays acts of acute, adoring intimacy directed by another man, another artist, towards his life partner. This exacting mise-en-abîme echoes the larger picture of an authored exhibition-as-artwork, doubling up as a polyphonic love letter dedicated to contemporary art’s most legendary sleeping beauty, John Giorno.
With his typical wit, Giorno is slightly dismissive of the fabled status of Sleep (1963): “It was an easy shoot. I loved to sleep.” Seemingly plain and evocative of avant-garde cinema’s sometimes de-skilled approach, the film, in fact, took Warhol months of trial and error to produce this lingering examination of Giorno blissfully snoozing. Drawn out to sixteen images per second, with carefully repeated segments, Warhol imbued Sleep with an eerie quality heightened by its presentation with Erik Satie’s Vexations (1893) as a soundtrack, as if to further distance it from the plainness of desire. Warhol’s ambivalence about the level of intimacy revealed by the work was such that Giorno described him as terrified that it would be perceived as a gay movie, perceived as a gay man’s filming another gay man. That’s why Sleep looks like it does; it doesn’t even look like a man half the time. It looks like light and dark, like an abstract painting.
For all the theorizing around Sleep, few words have been written about Untitled (John in Country), Untitled (John in Hammock), Naomi and John, and Naomi, all also created in 1963 and now premiering in New York on the occasion of the exhibition. These candid films, made on a trip to the country early in Warhol’s relationship with Giorno, provide insight into the origins of Warhol’s deep, consequential relationship with moving images. In their bucolic simplicity, the four films express Warhol’s nascent infatuations with both technology and subject.
In the words of Jonas Mekas, who is largely credited with launching Warhol’s career as a filmmaker, the very humble and precarious aspect of [Warhol’s] films seems to respect the intimacy of reality.1 Questions of boundaries and access abound in Sleep. And while the Screen Tests, far from recording a neutral image of their subjects, expose the intensity of their self-awareness, perhaps the most real aspect of the films and photographs on view at Swiss Institute is their recording of Warhol’s rapid self-teaching of cinematographic techniques.
Andy Warhol’s urge to capture the world through moving images began with his relatively brief, impassioned relationship with John Giorno. From these early films, he would go on to make near-countless screen tests, more experimental films such as Eat (1963) and Haircut (1963), narrative features, and even television programs. When presenting an award to Warhol in 1970, Mekas said of Warhol’s alchemical documentation:
We are starting to realize that we had never seen anyone getting his hair cut or anyone eating. We had our hair cut, we have been eating, but we have never really seen these actions. The whole reality that surrounds us becomes interesting, differently.2
The origins of Warhol’s film career center upon a romantic impulse; each quotidian gesture executed by Giorno perpetuates a certain grace. These films evoke a particular, rare sensation in which, despite everything remaining the same, the world feels entirely new—a bit like falling in love.
Director of Swiss Institute