Andy Warhol never intended that his films break box-office records.
But, in 1966, the acclaimed avant-garde artist and filmmaker made a movie that registered with the public in a way that his previous efforts had not.
“The Chelsea Girls” consists of a perpetually running split-screen — one image is on the left, the other on the right — shown over the course of a running time of about 3 hours and 20 minutes.
Both sets of images document Warhol’s so-called “superstar” performers — including Nico, Ondine and Mary Woronov — in what is purported to be the Chelsea Hotel in New York City.
As part of a month-long series also featuring several related films by Warhol, “The Chelsea Girls” will screen Friday at the Wexner Center for the Arts.
“It was his first film that was commercially successful,” said Bill Horrigan, curator at large at the Wexner Center.
“It opened in various venues in downtown New York and was reviewed by the Village Voice and places like that,” Horrigan said. “Because it was so successful, they moved it uptown and it became like a real movie. They found themselves with reviews from Newsweek.”
For the record, Newsweek critic Jack Kroll described the film as “the ‘Iliad’ of the underground.”
Despite such lofty praise, practical considerations informed the making of “The Chelsea Girls” — including Warhol’s need to meet a looming deadline.
“Jonas Mekas at the Film-Makers’ Cinematheque had given (Warhol) a spot to show something in September of ’66,” said Greg Pierce, associate curator of film and video at the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh.
Instead of creating a new film, Warhol borrowed segments from several stand-alone films.
“There’s all this stuff that he didn’t know if he wanted to show … as individual works, per se,” Pierce said, adding that Warhol had long harbored the ambition to make exceedingly lengthy films. In 1964, the artist made a much-commented-upon abstract film about the Empire State Building, the 8-hour-long “Empire.”
“He wanted to do something probably epic,” he said. “He’d always wanted do these long films — things that are longer than everybody else.”
Geralyn Huxley, the Warhol museum’s curator of film and video, described the resulting film as well-suited to the information-overload culture of 21st-century America.
“It’s kind of like a smorgasbord,” Huxley said. “I don’t think now people will have a hard time seeing all that content, because I think people now, as opposed to the ’60s, are used to overwhelming content.”
And viewers should not fret if their attention is focused on one side of the screen or the other, Pierce said.
“You can see it a number of times and you definitely (would think), ‘Oh, I’m going to focus on the left side this time,’” he said. “It’s why it actually can live and breathe for so long.”
After the screening on Friday, the Wexner Center series — “The Chelsea Girls Exploded” — also will present the original films that fed into what evolved into “The Chelsea Girls,” including “The Trip (Version 1)” and “(Unknown Eric Reel)” on Sept. 19 and “The John” and “The Pope Ondine Story” on Sept. 25.
The word “exploded” in the title of the series refers to the museum’s attempts to illustrate how “The Chelsea Girls” was produced.
“‘Exploded’ in the sense of an illustration of a car engine,” Huxley said. “You’d take the engine block out; you’d take the carburetor off.”
On Wednesday, two films will be shown that were intended to be woven into “The Chelsea Girls” but were subsequently deleted: “Afternoon” and “The Closet.”
The former, Huxley said, was omitted at the behest of actress Edie Sedgwick.
“She was around the (Warhol) factory in 1965,” she said. “By 1966, she’d had a falling out with Warhol, and she asked him to take that film out of ‘The Chelsea Girls.’”
Yet the other films scheduled to be shown have merit beyond their connection to the featured attraction, Pierce said.
“They’re connected to ‘The Chelsea Girls,’” he said, “but they are their own works of art.”