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Andy Warhol, Paul Morrissey, Joe Dallesandro, Candy Darling,
Andy Warhol, Paul Morrissey, Joe Dallesandro, Candy Darling, New York, 21 May 1969Photography Richard Alvedon, © The Richard Avedon Foundation

How Andy Warhol brought sex to the silver screen

Despite his preference for ‘not doing it’, the auteur’s experimental films paved the way for queer intimacy and sex positivity in cinema today

For an artist who claimed the most exciting thing about sex was “not-doing-it”, Andy Warhol sure filmed a lot of it. Despite being best known for his killer one-liners and artistic commentaries on snobbery and capitalism, Warhol also amassed a lesser-discussed filmography of queer, sex-positive cinema. Raf Simons recently tapped into these vaults, screenprinting stills of Kiss (1963) onto a capsule line of CK underwear, but delve deeper and you’ll find a body of work which sparked the ‘porno chic’ movement and made on-screen fucking mainstream.

Warhol’s early work was unashamedly experimental, stretching footage of the banal – a boyfriend sleeping, a painter eating a mushroom, a fixed view of the Empire State Building at night – into cinematic works of art which lasted anywhere between 30 minutes and eight hours. Food, slumber and sex were all captured through Warhol’s lens, stripped of context and, in the case of sex, sensationalism; instead, shots were drawn-out and repetitive to the point of mundanity.

This repetition is especially important in the context of Couch (1964), a black-and-white silent film which depicts various couples kissing, hugging and fucking on a sofa. Featuring an underground cast plucked from his fabled Factory, the film riffs on the rotten core of Hollywood’s ’casting couch’  mentality and flips it, creating an ode to intimacy and the pleasures of consensual love-making. Through Warhol’s eyes, salacious scenes are normalised, spliced casually between scenes of long, loving embraces and laid-back conversations between lovers. The auteur takes a more suggestive, unconventional approach with Blow Job (1964), in which the camera meanders across a male face contorted with pleasure. The obvious implication is that this man is getting his dick sucked out of shot, but Warhol leaves this open to interpretation. He neither confirms nor denies, instead, leaving the sex to linger in the air.

These left-field depictions of intimacy tie into Warhol’s own well-documented musings on sex and love. The artist was reportedly a virgin throughout much of his life but had plenty to say about sex in his sort-of memoir, The Philosophy of Andy Warhol: From A to B and Back Again, in which he states that fantasy and build-up are more exciting than the actual intercourse. Some of his friends have since claimed he was lying through his teeth and actually loved sex but, no matter what he did in his personal life, Warhol’s commentaries on sex and sexuality were refreshingly complex: There should be courses on beauty and love and sex. With love as the biggest course,” states Warhol in the book. “They should teach the kids, but they won’t do that, because love and sex are business.”

“No matter what he did in his personal life, Warhol’s commentaries on sex and sexuality were refreshingly complex”

Whether or not he was having it himself, Warhol clearly viewed sex as political. This became clearer as his films began to incorporate narrative – there was dialogue! Storylines! Characters! That’s not to say these films weren’t still controversial, though; Chelsea Girls (1966) was met with sour reviews from pissed-off critics complaining about its length, Since (1966) reconstructed the assassination of JFK, and Lonesome Cowboys (1968), a kind of queer Romeo & Juliet with bandanas and bad denim, was seized by Atlanta police in 1969.

But it was Fuck, a 1968 film that was re-released a year later as Blue Movie (in reference to a mistake which left its blue-tinged mark on the scenes), which saw Warhol truly penetrate mainstream political consciousness. Essentially a feature-length depiction of uncensored, unscripted sex, Blue Movie became the first erotic film to be released widely in cinemas across America. The success of the film laid the foundations for other films like Deep Throat (1972) to gain widespread recognition, ushering in the ‘golden age of porn’ – an important historical period which saw public attitudes towards pornography shift. He might not have liked fucking, but Warhol sparked a tide of change which saw America warm up to the idea of porn with artistic value.

Equally important is Warhol’s close circle of muses, many of whom were queer, trans or drag queens; throughout the 1960s, this collective of beautiful misfits was gaining serious cultural traction, starring in Warhol’s experimental films and reeking havoc on New York’s nightlife. But visibility leads to violence. In this case, the violence was state-sanctioned and the victims were the queers and queens of the Stonewall Inn, many of whom were gender non-conforming people of colour. They fought fire with fire, striking back and sparking the Stonewall riots, now known as the key catalyst for a queer liberation movement.

It was around this time that Warhol was making his queerest work ever. The late 1960s saw him work with Paul Morrissey to produce a trilogy of films – Flesh (1968), Trash (1970) and Heat (1972) – which followed the adventures of a hustler named Joe, played by Joe Dallesandro. Over the course of several hours, we see Joe hook up with countless men and women, shoot up hard drugs and ultimately fail sexually on numerous occasions. Graphic scenes of fucking are frequent and explicit to the extent that an entire audience was once arrested at a London screening of Flesh, but there’s a sense of normalcy which permeates certain scenes – like one in which Joe falls asleep as two naked women get down to business.

The films are all no-holds-barred when it comes to who screws who, too: men fuck women, women fuck women and men fuck men. As Janet Jackson sang on “Free Xone”: “one rule, no rules.” This liberal, carefree attitude towards sex, gender and sexuality spawned a number of trans stars including Holly Woodlawn, who almost won an Academy Award nomination for her role in Trash due to a failed petition led by director George Cukor. She also starred in Women in Revolt (1972) alongside fellow trans superstars Jackie Curtis and Candy Darling. This unprecedented trans visibility is even groundbreaking by today’s standards – in the context of a film industry still determined to cast cis actors in trans roles, Warhol and his superstars are undeniable trailblazers.

His divisive filmography may never win the widespread acclaim of his muses and riffs on capitalism, but the activist bent of Warhol’s cinematic output shouldn’t be ignored. His own sex life is still hotly-debated; some believe he really was a virgin, others that he was fucking with the public’s perception by writing his own narrative. Whatever the truth may be, Warhol’s films shifted mainstream attitudes towards sex, coincided with – and arguably buoyed – the fight for queer liberation and created a series of trans superstars whose legacy will always live on. For a man apparently reluctant to actually get down to business himself, Warhol created a surprisingly sex-positive legacy which is as necessary now as it was in the 1960s.