Sex Scenes: How Andy Warhol’s ‘Blow Job’ Helped Create Queer Visibility

The 1964 film depicts a man receiving oral sex from what Warhol described as “five beautiful boys.”

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Nov 6 2018, 6:21pm

If you lived in New York City in the ’60s, you’d have seen a listing in Village Voice for A Title That Can’t Be Revealed, a film by Andy Warhol. Other papers called it “A title that can’t be mentioned in a family newspaper” or, more directly, B-J.

Blow Job, the film the listing advertised, was made in 1964, when Warhol was an established art star. Two years earlier, he’d had his first New York solo show of Campbell’s soup cans, Marilyn Monroe diptychs, and Coca-Cola bottles. Kennedy was president, and Pop art was the American kingdom; Warhol was on the throne.

In his book Andy Warhol: Blow Job, Peter Gidal writes about seeing the film in theaters as a college freshman. Shown as an opener to a weekly art house film in New York City, Warhol’s black and white film is 36 minutes of a camera framing the face of a man receiving a blow job, presumably beneath the frame. You never see cock, or any of the act itself. Instead, Warhol shows us a handsome man getting his dick sucked: his head lolls around, he stares in the the distance as one does when given to pleasure, and finally he smokes a cigarette. Gidal notes that the audience was completely silent, curious, and respectful.

If you were gay and metropolitan in the ’60s, you would have likely known that Warhol “went to your church,” so to speak. In interviews, Warhol famously stated that “five beautiful boys” performed the act in the film. He claimed he couldn’t remember the name of the lead actor—“a good-looking kid who happened to be hanging around the Factory that day.” Or it could be, as someone else remembers it, that the five boys became impatient waiting to start, and all but one left before filming began.

When Gidal caught the film again three years later, at the same New York cinema, in 1968, “the year of the marches to Mississippi, the anti-Vietnam protest, and not to mention Paris,” the audience was notably uneasy, making jokes, waving their hands in front of the projector. Blow Job was now a piece of the Warhol’s cinematic oeuvre, which by then amounted to 20 movies made in just two years. His’s feverish pace of production that would cease in 1968, when he nearly died after being shot by one of his former film stars, Valerie Solanas. Warhol would hand the film production to Paul Morrissey, and security at the Factory became much tighter—it was no longer a place where strangers, weirdos, fame-seekers, and queers could freely come and go. Warhol himself once remarked that he lost his creativity after he “stopped hanging around with creeps”.

The story of Warhol is the story of the Warhol stars, those who remain glittering and those nameless, erased, absorbed into Warhol himself, never making a name for themselves—or much of anything from being the pulse of the Factory in the ’60s. Anyone who collaborated with or worked for Warhol during that time became a sort of avatar. The films, and the Factory and its stars, served as a constant entourage for Warhol, a crowd in which he could hide. Without these accomplices to hide behind, Warhol would have had no art. His biographer Wayne Koestenbaum argues that, “His work’s major theme was interpersonal manipulation, sociability’s modules at war.” But despite the co-dependency between Warhol and his stars, and their obvious infatuation with and loyalty to him, few, writes Koestenbaum, seemed to have loved him. The relationships were often described as having a cold quality, with Warhol in possession of an oddness that put even those close to him off. Warhol, Koestenbaum notes, was never comfortable in his skin, never capable of fully finding a footing in social (or romantic) situations—yet he was eternally obsessed with fame society, sex, and power.

Warhol must have been excited to find the star of Blow Job, who recalled Hollywood heartthrobs with his American bad boy aura. Over the course of the film, that image seems to shift, resembling James Dean, Jesus on the cross, a skull. The film is often referred to as sublime or transcendent, praised for its chiaroscuro lighting—the play of dark and light as the actor looks down, throws his head back and lets it roll around slightly, patterns undulating across his lips and cheeks.

The viewer can only intuit that the actor is coming by decoding, empathically, his facial expressions (porn’s money shot concept wouldn’t be invented until 1972). He seems to wince or weep, then lights a cig, a decision that lends the film a feminine quality by its “proximity to porn’s display of the female orgasm which is marked by its apocryphal surface quality,” writes Roy Grundmann in his book Andy Warhol’s Blow Job.

Warhol stopped showing his movies in 1970 and resuming the showings only in 1988. Because the films weren’t shown in their heyday, there’s a lag in their influence, says Claire Henry, the curator of the Warhol Film Program at the Whitney. “It’s the younger artists that were arguably more influenced by a film like Blow Job,” she says, which is apparent in the wave of queer films made in the ’90s. “Now that the films are out, I believe they are influencing younger artists in a way that hadn’t happened before. Within the age of the iPhone, we are influenced much more by video...I truly wish he would have lived to see the iPhone.”

Warhol was often described as “asexual” by the media, a way to avoid saying he was gay, but he never hid his desire. Today, it’s understood that Warhol’s work, especially films such as Blow Job or its sisters Kiss and Couch, with their gay kissing scenes, his persona, and his fluid superstars helped create queer visibility.

Henry points out that Warhol may have shelved the films during the ’70s because he was doing a lot of commissioned work at that time. The films cost money to run, and Warhol was notoriously cheap, not paying his actors at all (or at least not well). Warhol has been long criticized for his unabashed desire to mix money with art, making no secret that money drove his production as an artist. Koestenbaum argues that for Warhol, art was not only a means of making money but also a means of having sex, channeling every impulse back into his work. “For Warhol, everything is sexual,” he writes.