Film and TV

Commissioned by John and Dominique in '64, Warhol's Sunset Rises at The Menil

Nico was one of those luminaries whose star burned a little too brightly, leaving in her wake a body of work that included collaborations with Federico Fellini, The Velvet Underground and Bob Dylan, while also inspiring many musicians, including Björk and Patti Smith.

But it was her involvement with Andy Warhol and his studio, The Factory, that brings vocalist Nico back in the spotlight today. Warhol was a prolific filmmaker during the early '60s, cranking out more than 600 films, including 1963's Sleep and 1964's Empire.

During the Age of Aquarius, Menil Collection founders John and Dominique de Menil set their sights on the 1968 HemisFair in San Antonio and called on Warhol to make a film. “The Vatican had commissioned the great artists to do something for a spiritual space,” says Michelle White, curator for The Menil Collection. “[Warhol] proposed doing a film of sunsets that would be presented in this spiritual-religious space.”

While Sunset never made it to San Antonio, Warhol did finish it, filming in just one location. “This is one static shot of a sunset in California,” says White about the 16mm analog film. While he shot other sunset films in San Francisco, East Hampton and New York City, this particular reel was restored by The Andy Warhol Film Project because the soundtrack features Nico reading poetry off-screen. “Nico's voice is so mesmerizing and wonderful to hear,” says White.

There's something poetic about the Menil's decision to show the film just once a day, similar to a sunset, but also elevating it as an event. “I think often when we go in to museums that have films and videos running on a loop, we often kind of drop in and drop out quite quickly,” says White. Showing the 33-minute film print requires a projectionist and invites a specific arrival. They've transformed the east gallery into a screening room with eight benches and a few bean bag cushions up front.

Companion programming is scheduled after the film's run on key dates – White calls them “sunset sessions – and, as the museum closes at 7 p.m., these short programs are designed to explore ideas, though quickly. The long run (into 2017) also lends itself to repeat viewings. “I love the idea of it that it has such a long life; it goes through the holiday season,” says White. “It's a beautiful film. It's mesmerizing, ambient. It is rewarding to view it.”

Seating is limited for the sunset sessions. Below is the line-up from The Menil Collection website:

Wednesday, August 31 - DJ Merseyside offers up a music set inspired by and with tracks from The Velvet Underground & Nico’s album, co-produced by Warhol in 1967.

Wednesday, September 28 - Filmmaker and curator Peter Lucas presents a film from the Menil archives.

Wednesday, October 5 - Filmmaker and curator Peter Lucas presents a film from the Menil archives.

Wednesday, October 26 - Alejandro Chaoul-Reich, writer, teacher, and director of education for the Integrative Medicine Program at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, leads a meditation.

Wednesday, November 2 - Haley Berkman, curatorial assistant, talks about John and Dominique de Menils’ relationship with Warhol and the commission of Sunset.

Wednesday, November 9 - Joseph Campana, associate professor of English literature at Rice University, poet, and arts writer, conducts a poetry reading.

Wednesday, December 14 - Dr. Tish Stringer, lecturer and film program manager at Rice University, talks about film. 

Andy Warhol's Sunset screens at 6 p.m. Wednesdays through Sundays, August 19 through January 8, at The Menil Collection, 1533 Sul Ross, 713-525-9400, visit Free. 
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Susie Tommaney is a contributing writer who enjoys covering the lively arts and culture scene in Houston and surrounding areas, connecting creative makers with the Houston Press readers to make every week a great one.
Contact: Susie Tommaney