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"A huge problem of not knowing what to do..."

Sandra Jõgeva (3/2016)

Excerpt from an interview with John Giorno on December 11th, 2014 at 222 Bowery street, New York – a house where Andy Warhol’s "Sleep" (1963) was filmed. Interviewed by Sandra Jõgeva and Marian Kivila; full transcription of the interview available in the exhibition catalogue.


14. VII–14. VIII 2016
Pärnu Museum
Curators: Marian Kivila, Sandra Jõgeva.



Sandra Jõgeva (S.J.): How did it all start? How did you end up as part of Warhol’s circle? As I understand, you were dating Andy Warhol. Were you born here, in New York?


John Giorno (J.G.): Yes, I was. I was born here and I went to school here. At Columbia University. So how did it start? Here, like in this building and around this neighborhood.


S.J.: So you have been living here all your life?


J.G.: Well yes, I have been in this building since the early sixties. It was a very small scene of filmmakers, poets, painters and sculptors. It was just about eighty people. And Andy happened to be one of them. You know there were just seven pop artists in that art scene. So I knew a lot of artists at the time and I met Andy at a party in 1962. But it was a very small scene and we all knew each other. One I think was the Judson Church in Washington Square. Something called the Judson Dance Theatre. All these things were… the happenings were happening, Allan Kaprow was happening. Carolee Schneemann was doing her "Meat Joy" (1964). Beginnings of happenings. And Andy went to those things as I did, and it was an extended scene.


Marian Kivila (M.K.): Was it love at the first sight? (Sorry…)


J.G.: I don't know. So I met Andy before his opening, at Sidney Janis' opening. Three days later, on November 3rd, 1962…


S.J.: You remember the exact date?


J.G.: Well, because it was three days after the Halloween. Because at first it was a very tiny scene and these seven pop artists were shown in the Sidney Janis gallery on October 31st, which you know is called Halloween. And it was just pop art, you can imagine – Jim Rosenquist, Roy Lichtenstein, whatever. And it was considered so outrageous. So that all of the abstract painters, who were at the Sidney Janis – like Mark Rothko, Willem De Kooning and Jackson Pollock – all resigned the gallery at this trash that was being shown. I remember this because I was there. And three days later, it was November 3rd now – that was Andy's first show.


S.J.: First show ever?


J.G.: First show ever. It had golden Marilyns and Campbell soup cans and all that, at the Eleanor Ward Gallery.


S.J.: And he asked you out?


J.G.: We had dinner at the top floor of this building. Friend of mine had a loft. We are at the bunker of William Burroughs, which is this loft. And on the top floor there was a loft where Andy and I were invited to dinner before we went to the Judson Dance Theatre. This was sort of now in February or March. And it's from then that we started seeing each other. Because the very next night was the world premiere of Jack Smith's "Flaming Creatures" (1963). But each of us – Andy and me – had seen it at least 24 times before, over the year and a half, because Jack just kept showing it. So you would see it and see it and see it. So it was world premiere and neither of us wanted to go, but it's the world premiere, so we had to go. So we had the rendezvous the next night after this dinner and from then on we sort of went to things all the time together.


S.J.: Even Wikipedia says that you split up in 1964.


J.G.: Yes. Because in the end of 1964 I met William Burroughs and Brion Gysin – they came to New York. I switched worlds. They arrived somewhere in November of 1964. And from January on I was in their world. It seems strange, but William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg and all that world was… it could have been China, it was just another world away. So I was in a different world for decades.


S.J.: And you became a poet or you already were?


J.G.: I've always been a poet, since quite young.


S.J.: But how did you end up as a star of "Sleep"?


J.G.: Well Andy didn't know what he was doing – that's how I ended up. After his show in 1962, Jonas Mekas invented something called the Film-Makers' Co-op over there – the Cinematheque. Because there were lots of small movie houses in New York City – leftover from the 1920s and 1930s. But small, where there's only one hundred or hundred and ten seats. And they were still functioning as movie theatres, all over the city. But sometimes they had to be closed on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, because there was not enough people to keep it going. And so they were open on Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday.

So Jonas got this great idea of renting these cinemas by the night. On Tuesday night were shown these four films – Jack Smith, Kenneth Anger, this and that. And sometimes two or three nights a week in different theatres. On Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, but in different theatres. I mean, he got them really cheap, I think. So it was like free. And there was this world of us, so we all went as much as we could.

So Andy and I went almost two or three times a week. And what happened was – he was no more a filmmaker than I was, but he's an artist. So he was just fascinated at the process. And when you see things over and over again. Four films a night, so they would always put the new one fourth. And you had to listen to the first, to the second, to the third. But the first was Jack Smith's "Flaming Creatures" that we had already seen 20 times. And Kenneth Anger's "Scorpio Rising" (1962) we had also seen 15 times. And whatever, Conner's or anybody else.

But when you see things over and over, you understand what's good and what's bad. So that's how Andy learned how to make a movie. Sitting through the endless changing reels, the 16 mm changing reels. I could see him thinking: Why don't they do it that way? You could see him seeing the mistake or how it should be done. And a few months later, three or four months later, he got the idea: Why don't I do it? So that's how he started.


M.K.: Why do you think this movie – "Sleep" – is so special?


J.G.: I have no idea.


M.K.: Do you like it yourself?


J.G.: It's complicated. It was his first movie and he didn't know how to do it. And so that's why it was a torture for him for a year and almost a disaster. And it's really curious how he was able to transform it into a film.




Andy Warhol
1963, 16 mm film, 5 h 21'
Courtesy of the Andy Warhol Museum
Exhibition view by Marian Kivila





M.K.: Do you remember something about filming the movie? How did you really fall asleep? Did you have to take sleeping pills or how was it?


J.G.: Well, generally I like to sleep. So I slept all the time. I drank a lot in those days. So when you drink you always either have a hangover or you're drunk – so you can always go to… So I was often sleeping, when he called. And he was looking at whatever everyday activity and he sort of filmed Bob Indiana eating a mushroom and that's…


S.J.: A magic mushroom?


J.G.: No, just an ordinary mushroom, just a dumb idea of Bob Indiana eating a mushroom. But that only takes five minutes or something and he was looking for a bigger thing. So that's how he came up with the idea of "Sleep".


M.K.: What was the feedback for the movie? Did people love this?


J.G.: Well, it was so notorious before it came out, because Andy was just beginning to get famous, but he knew a lot about how to get publicity. He had so many friends and he endlessly got publicity. He shot it in the summer of 1963. But instantly it was famous, this eight hour movie. He hadn't shot it, but he was getting those fashion magazines writing "Andy Warhol's eight hour movie "Sleep", and so it was notorious before it came out.

And why he didn't know how to make a movie is that he just bought a Bolex camera and so we spent two weeks in July filming "Sleep". And then after the end of the first week maybe he sent some to be developed. And then it was the end of the second week, so we had two weeks. And when he gets it back. So it was a Bolex camera which in those years it's a two-minute reel and every twenty seconds you have to wind it. So that's what he did for two weeks – he rewound it every twenty seconds. And when he gets it developed – every twenty seconds there is a jerk in the film. Because when you do this, the camera is on the stand. So there's hundreds and hundreds of films that he took and it's all nothing.

Then he meets a friend of ours, Bud Wirtschafter, who was a filmmaker. Bud says: "Andy, there's a gadget – you plug it in the camera and you plug it in the wall and it rewinds automatically". So Andy gets this gadget and we shoot it for two more weeks. And this is now in August. And then he gets that back and everything is perfect. But you can't put two things, two two-minutes together – it's a jerk or splice. And it was obvious that it doesn't work this way. And he was not a filmmaker, so he was shooting lots of different angles and many of the rolls were from this angle and there were few angles that eventually got into the movie. And it doesn't work. You know, he wasn't a film editor. And so now it's in The Village Voice – the progress of this film. And I think quite early, like at the end of August, there were some great stills, easy. You know that famous one. So that's in The Village Voice already. And it did continue going on. But he worked on it daily and there was this huge problem of not knowing what to do.

And this I learned from an art critic Branden Joseph, who's… Recently there was a giant screening in London… Erik Satie's "Vexations" (ca 1893) played live and they played "Sleep" for 34 hours in Tate's Turbine Hall. And so I was there. So Branden says to me: "John, I've seen this movie a thousand times and I found something. There's a sequence. They repeat". There are repetitions in "Sleep" in six and half hours. Like, this gets repeated three times and the other gets repeated and they alternate in a funny way.

And what I remember was that really curious detail. Andy and I in September of 1963 went to a John Cage produced "Vexations", which is this 34 hour piece by Erik Satie, for the first time. Even though it was written in the 1880s or 1990s, it had never been performed. So John Cage rented this place. And what it is, it's twelve pianos alternating this repetitive phrasing for a certain amount. It always lasts between 32 and 34 hours. So I was there with Andy and I stayed for a little while, couple of hours, and I left and Andy was there, he stayed when I left. I came back at one o'clock in the morning and stayed until I don't know what. Just this repetitive music, live. So then I remember… I have this really great memory, so I remember that night. The theatre was up on Third Avenue and there was a booklet, you know. On the cover was a picture of Satie and an explanation of the process of "Vexations". And then at the back of it was a brief description of Erik Satie being a Rosicrucian. And then they said one of the things that Rosicrucians do are these formulas, magical formulas. And they listened to them – something like A, B, C, B, C, B, C, A – you know, that kind of thing. And they listened to three of those formulas. Because I remember I took a program home. So the scheme of repetitions in Andy's "Sleep" is one of these formulas.

Andy was not a Rosicrucian, but I think out of desperation he knew he had to repeat things and he used maybe that. We'll never know, but he sure had the program at home. What happened then, he shot some more "Sleep" in early October, like the first week or tenth of October. And he said he knew… He would obviously feel what shots worked well and he said: "I know what I want to do, but I want to do them over again, some of them better". And that's when we did another shoot in October, which was final. I think some of those are the ones that really became the repetitions in "Sleep" that he cut.


M.K.: How would you describe Andy as a person and as an artist?


J.G.: Well, of course he was a great artist… and he was really kind and shy and all those things – supersensitive, withdrawn and all those things. But mainly kind and shy.


S.J.: Do you think he was lonely?


J.G.: His kind of loneliness was beyond loneliness. I have a funny thought about Andy, because in those years, when I first met him was in 1962, or even before that – everybody hated pop art. Everybody, including Bob Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. Because at that point, even earlier on, Andy was the father of pop art, so they became literally the grandfathers. You can imagine – Bob Rauschenberg as the grandfather of pop art! But he blew his top when those things happened. And Andy was… just because he transformed art in the profound way that he wasn't even aware of at the time. And so he was hated all his life.

And then when you get into the 1970s, after he was shot, his art really, in my mind, profoundly changes. Because when he got shot, he couldn't take drugs any more. Andy's drug of choice was speed and he took speed. Speed can be great, it works sometimes in your life. Like for Jack Kerouac and all these people. And so when he got shot, he couldn't take any more drugs and somehow he didn't. One thing that speed does that's good – it makes you fearless. We were all on speed so one saw that. And then, when he was shot, he couldn't take it anymore. And he was afraid of dying, so he stopped all drugs. And I think his world changed. He is still a brilliant artist and goes on, but his decisions were less breakthroughs in some ways.


S.J.: How much are you still in touch with people from like the 1960s, like Warhol’s circle? Do you meet Brigid Berlin occasionally, for example?


J.G.: No. So occasionally that I can't even say. I saw her once kind a few years ago. I see a lot of people from the Warhol Museum and Warhol Foundation. All the people that work there are sort of friends of mine. I'll go tomorrow to Pittsburgh, to the Andy Warhol Museum, for example. So I see that world, but everyone else vanished, you know. I think they're sick or old. You know Viva, who was so bright and brilliant, just sort of vanished into California. She likes to play golf and…


S.J.: Jesus!


J.G.: But there's something I just remembered I didn't finish talking about. When I said that Andy was always rejected, it went on his entire life. And the more he became famous and before he took that route of endless celebrity portraits and kitsch and living that other world. So he was hated. Obviously pop artists they liked each other in here. But everyone else in the art world, from the abstract painters, Bob and Jasper and the serious art world hated Andy at the beginning. And in the 1970s and 1980s, when he died, he was hated more by them, because he became so famous and rich and all.

When he died, Kynaston McShine did his show at Museum of Modern Art in New York (MoMA) and he is a good friend of mine. And he said: "It's so difficult". He said: "John, do you realize, Andy was more hated at the moment when he died then in any other time in his life?" And that was shocking. And he said that he even had problems in MoMA raising money. Even though he didn't take drugs and was gay, but didn't do anything, he was still considered a druggy and a gay.


S.J.: What do you mean by "didn't do anything"?


J.G.: Well, he didn't have promiscuous sex, he was just gay. And he didn't take drugs for 25 years. But they couldn't raise money because of the drugs and him being gay. This was in 1987 or 1988. And then it occurred to me that at the moment of death, when Andy's life flashed in front of him, it's those one thousand times of rejection. 1950s, when abstract painters thought he was a gay man and didn't… DeKooning and all. All through his life until he died. Even though he was so famous and so successful and rich and loved by everyone – he was also hated by everyone.

I have a similar problem with the people in conservative areas of the art and literature. But Andy was extreme in his life. He was so famous and so hated. I can't help but to always think that this was the saddest part of Andy's life. That's like having cancer. There's always endless criticism arising, they're treating you badly and all that. And that's something I think nobody ever thinks about Andy, because they think he was just a robot or he was so famous that those things didn't matter. But I think that really mattered to him.



Sandra Jõgeva is an artist who lives and works in Tallinn.

Marian Kivila is an art historian who lives and works in Pärnu.

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