Cinema and Media Studies The Films of Andy Warhol
J. J. Murphy
  • LAST REVIEWED: 13 May 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 May 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0158


Andy Warhol (b. 1928–d. 1987) began making films in 1963, at the height of his success as a painter and sculptor. Beginning with the 5-hour-and-21-minute Sleep (1963), Warhol made hundreds of films between 1963 and 1968. Following his near-fatal shooting by Valerie Solanas, Warhol shifted into the role of producer with Flesh (1968–1969), directed by his associate, Paul Morrissey. Generally speaking, Warhol’s films interrogate cinematic conventions. For instance, instead of the shot or frame, Warhol used the film roll (whose length was determined by Kodak) as the basic unit of his cinema. He also projected his early films without sound as well as the silent Screen Tests (1964–1966) at 16 fps, a slower speed than the standard 24 fps. Warhol’s films can be broken down into several different phases or periods, including works created with different collaborators. His early films, such as Sleep, Eat (1964), Blow Job (1964), and Empire (1964), are notorious for being excessively “minimal.” He later switched to shooting in synchronous sound, first using scenarios written by playwright Ronald Tavel, and then later with the involvement of Chuck Wein and Paul Morrissey. Warhol also made sound portraits (including biopics), including 472 cinematic portraits or Screen Tests. These were short, 100-footlong film portraits of artists, celebrities, and ordinary people who gravitated to his infamous art studio known as the Factory. Warhol’s “middle period” experimented with expanded cinema and utilizing multiple screens. Warhol called these multimedia events “the Exploding Plastic Inevitable,” which involved films, dancing, light shows, theater, and music by the Velvet Underground. This period culminated in the release of Warhol’s most commercially successful film, The Chelsea Girls (1966), which became the epic of the underground cinema. In 1967, Warhol began making sexploitation films at the bequest of the owner of the Hudson Theater in Midtown Manhattan, where his earlier My Hustler (1965) had been a box office success. Many of Warhol’s films, most notably Lonesome Cowboys (1967–1968) and Blue Movie (1968), ran into censorship problems. Warhol also worked in video and television.

General Overviews

A number of books provide a general overview of Warhol’s artistic career, including his films. Gidal 1971 explores the relationship between the films and Warhol’s paintings. A major exponent of British structuralist/materialist film, the author emphasizes the connection between the serial nature of Warhol’s silkscreens and the fact that cinema consists of multiple frames. He also focuses on the temporal aspect of the films. According to Gidal, the anti-illusionism of Warhol’s cinema stems from his rejection of editing and montage in favor of continuous recording. Bourdon 1989 is one of the best and most comprehensive books written about Warhol’s art. The author, an art critic, surveys Warhol’s life and career from the perspective of an insider. Bourdon is extremely perceptive in discussing the paintings and sculptures (including Warhol’s later work), and also provides several notable chapters that deal with the pop artist’s major films. The large-format book is lavishly illustrated and contains a great deal of information not found elsewhere. Scherman and Dalton 2009 focuses on Warhol’s career until 1968. Utilizing interviews with major participants, such as Billy Name, Gerard Malanga, Chuck Wein, and Paul Morrissey, the author in this book adds to our understanding of Warhol’s importance as an artist and filmmaker by updating and supplementing much of the same material previously covered in Watson 2003. Scherman and Dalton, however, discuss Warhol’s films in much greater depth. Koestenbaum 2001, Indiana 2010, and Danto 2009 are three shorter volumes that survey Warhol’s life and career more broadly. Koestenbaum gives much more attention to the films than Indiana, who uses Warhol’s infamous soup cans as a springboard to discuss Warhol’s artistic career. Particularly insightful is his discussion of the differences between images and reality. The author makes a brief case for the importance of the sexploitation films—My Hustler, Bike Boy (1967–1968), Lonesome Cowboys, and Blue Movie—which he terms “crypto-narrative talkies.” Danto 2009 provides philosophical insights into Warhol’s art.

  • Bourdon, David. Warhol. New York: Abrams, 1989.

    One of the most comprehensive books about Warhol’s art. The art critic’s lively prose and measured insights make this book indispensable. The author is adept at explaining many different aspects of the films, including, for instance, why Joe Dallesandro would appeal to the sensibility of Morrissey rather than Warhol.

  • Danto, Arthur C. Andy Warhol. New Haven, CT, and London: Yale University Press, 2009.

    The philosopher and art critic Arthur Danto is best known for his famous essay on Warhol’s Brillo boxes, in which he questions the difference between an actual Brillo box in a supermarket and Warhol’s rendering of one as sculpture. His chapter entitled “Moving Images” (chapter 4, pp. 72–90) addresses the films.

  • Gidal, Peter. Andy Warhol: Films and Paintings. New York: Studio Vista/Dutton, 1971.

    An early book on Warhol’s career that was later reprinted in 1991 with a new preface and chronology. This slender volume is richly illustrated and discusses the relationship between Warhol’s paintings and films. With the exception of his coverage of Warhol’s second western, Lonesome Cowboys, the author does not discuss individual films in great depth.

  • Indiana, Gary. Andy Warhol and the Can That Sold the World. New York: Basic Books, 2010.

    Art critic Gary Indiana provides an extended essay that focuses on Warhol’s life and art. Argues that the disassociation of images from reality was not only a central aspect of Warhol’s work, but has become the prevailing characteristic of American culture as well, which helps to explain Warhol’s exalted status as an artist.

  • Koestenbaum, Wayne. Andy Warhol. New York: Viking, 2001.

    A witty and perceptive biographical and critical account of Warhol as an artist arguing that sex and time (“time as traumatic and as erotic”) are Warhol’s major preoccupations. Considers Warhol’s films to be his most personal art form. No index.

  • Scherman, Tony, and David Dalton. Pop: The Genius of Andy Warhol. New York: Harper, 2009.

    Includes a chapter containing biographical information, but this comprehensive book otherwise focuses on the period 1960–1968 and is based on extensive interviews with the major participants, all of which are listed as part of the endnotes to each chapter. The extensive research makes this book essential reading.

  • Watson, Steven. Factory Made: Warhol and the Sixties. New York: Pantheon, 2003.

    A cultural history of Warhol and the Factory in the 1960s. Discusses the various influences on Warhol’s work, including underground movies, dance, theater, poetry, music, fashion, the art world, drugs, and so forth. While useful and informative, the lack of footnotes can be frustrating to scholars wishing to know the actual sources.

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