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Taylor Mead's Forgotten Ass

Originally published in OthergroundNY 

Taylor Mead appeared in several of Andy Warhol’s films, but his performance in Taylor Mead’s Ass is his least recognized work. The silent film was shot at The Factory in 16mm black and white. Warhol keeps Mead’s naked ass in frame for seventy minutes. Coming as it did on the heels of Empire, which featured the Empire State Building in the same manner, Taylor Mead’s Ass is the flipside to its phallic forerunner.Empire runs for a total of eight hours and five minutes. At the time Warhol was relatively new to the art scene. He first showed his Campbell’s soup paintings  in Los Angeles at the Ferus Gallery in 1962.

The two movies are part of a minimalist series by Warhol that include SleepEat, and Blow Job. In Sleep, Warhol’s first film, the camera focuses on the sleeping face of Warhol’s lover John Giorno as he sleeps for eight hours. In Eat viewers see artist Robert Indiana eat mushrooms for 35 minutes. In Blow Job the face of DeVerne Bookwalter, who is receiving fellatio out of frame, holds the viewers attention for 35 minutes. There are other films that fall into the genre, including The KissHaircut andHenry Geldzahler. Audience participation through viewing, particularly in the longer pieces, is integral to the work because it brings them into the piece. The viewer becomes a part of the work as a witness to the passage of time.

“It was like La Monte Young; one tone that goes on and on,” said Mead in a phone interview, comparing the work to that of the avant-garde composer. “One time Andy and I were there [at Young’s apartment] and he started playing one of his pieces. I left after a half an hour, but he stayed for a couple of hours. The next day he said to me, ‘You know when to leave.’ But he was always watching what was going on.”

In the film, Mead’s pale white ass is surprisingly supple yet rather flat. Occasionally, at places where the film is crudely spliced together, the screen fades to white. The degree to which Mead animates his ass is revelatory, whether shaking it vigorously from side to side or standing still. Most movements are decidedly fem or comical, but rarely vulgar by today’s standards; the anus is never shown. During the film he shoves a several items between his butt cheeks, including: several one dollar bills, a ten dollar bill, a wallet, a Time magazine with The Beatles on the its cover; 8×10 glossies of movie stars, including Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor; several books, including Hemingway’s A Movable Feast, Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, and Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. At one point, he sprinkles laundry detergent on his butt creating a lovely cascading effect. Mead said the use of props was not Warhol’s idea, he requested them and someone off camera passed him items that were on hand. The amount of action taking place makes this by far one of the more entertaining of the minimalist films. However, this was due in large part to Mead’s restless energy.

“I know that Andy wanted me to hold still and I can’t hold still. I can’t pose for an artist or anything,” recalled Mead. “So I tried to get a bible up my ass or something–over his objections. He wanted it more boring.” No bible actually appears in the film.

The devotion of Warhol aficionados should not be underestimated. Many sit through the films with reverence. Jack Angstreich, star of Cinemania, a film which followed the movie obsessions of five New Yorkers, has seen most of Warhol’s films. He conceived of a way to watch Empire in its entirety without interruption.

“They don’t give you breaks,” said Angstriech. “I thought if I had this external catheter it wouldn’t be a problem.”

Regardless of how devotees and academics say the minimalist films should be approached, Mead doesn’t treat them with the same reverence.

“When ever they show it I always tell them to turn it off after about twenty minutes,” he said. “Its best as a background, like at a disco or for a performance piece.”

Apparently, Warhol did not treat the films with too much respect either.

“My friend [Reginald Gay] was watching it and there were people behind him making noise,” Mead recalled. “He turned around to complain and it was Andy and Henry Geldzahler drinking champagne.” At the time Geldzahler was assistant curator of twentieth century art at Metropolitan Museum of Art and starred in his own version of the sparse films. Henry Geldzahler was filmed the morning after Empire.

Why has Taylor Mead’s Ass faded into the background while Empire and Blow Job take the fore? The answer is simple: notions of taste. Few can argue that Bookwalter’s handsome face and the glorious architecture of the Empire State Building are not easier to take.


Screenings of Taylor Mead's Ass  are possible on request at The Museum of Modern Art in New York. 

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