As a child, I often visited friends of my parents, who had a candle in the shape of the Empire State Building in their living room cabinet. For many years, I avoided taking a closer look, believing it to be indecent. Only later, as a teenager, and knowing something about the building, did I realize what that ominous—and already long-gone—object actually represented. The associative form of the building—the Empire State, or the center and peak of the world’s capital, New York City—is clear even to a child. The building’s prominence motivated Warhol to take its portrait like a star, like a person. For eight hours he focused the camera on the skyscraper for Empire (1964), depicting it in a changing range of light situations. According to Warhol, “It’s an eight hour hard on. It’s so beautiful. The lights come on and stars come out and it sways.”
Typical, elaborate, and linear movie plots engaging emotions, love, and pain are not necessarily recalled in Warhol’s non-narrative early films, even as the camera follows the object of its desire into the bedroom. To watch a sleeping person for eight hours is an extremely intimate experience. In Sleep (1963), slow motion creates something like a moving still, unmoving movement and imperceptible action, in Warhol’s radically frozen time. The filmed poet John Giorno is no actor; he plays only himself— another concurrence here, one that demonstrates the fine difference between the performance of real, non-acted life before the documentary camera, and the learned or improvised role enacted when playing someone other than oneself. Warhol understood the subtle difference between performance and acting, documentary and fiction. The individuals placed as objects in front of the camera in Warhol’s screen studies chose between “being themselves” and actively delivering a role. Such is the case in the creative artists’ portraits that become a caricature: Dalí is upside-down, and Rosenquist rotates on an imaginary axis that runs between him and the camera.
Warhol’s enthusiastic description of this utterly actionless scenario is parallel to the process of Sleep: the dreamlike image of the sleeping John Giorno recreates an intimacy otherwise shared only by a lover who wakes beside his partner, who could stay awake all night watching the object of his love. It’s that most intimate, exposed, powerless moment before or after lovemaking—while the other rests and dreams, defenseless.
Director of MoMA PS1 and Chief Curator at Large at The Museum of Modern Art in New York City