Andy Warhol, Empire, 1964/The Andy Warhol Museum

Celebrating one of the world's most famous skyscrapers on the day an equally famous artist filmed it. For a long, long time.

Despite his lifelong love of celebrity culture, Andy Warhol's first forays into film were definitely not meant for Hollywood: 45 minutes of a man eating a mushroom, six hours of a man sleeping, and for those less interested in people, eight hours of silent staring at the Empire State Building.

On the night of July 25, 1964, Warhol and a small group of artists headed up to a 41st floor office inside the Time-Life Building in Manhattan with a perfect view of what was then the world's tallest building. Sixteen blocks away from the Empire State Building, Warhol and his group used a 16-millimeter camera and 10 33-minute reels to make their avant garde film. Shooting began at 8 p.m. and finished at 2:30 the next morning.

Going against what every normal person would think to do with six-and-a-half hours of footage, Warhol slowed Empire down, turning it into an eight-hour movie. Why? "The outrageousness of it," says Geralyn Huxley, Curator of Film and Video at The Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh.

Despite its complete lack of narrative and its challenging length, Empire remains popular today. Bootleg versions keep popping up on YouTube (taking them down "is like whack-a-mole," Huxley tells us. The museum provides an authorized clip on their site). 

It was added to the Library of Congress's National Film Registry in 2004. The following year, it was shown in its entirety against an external wall of London's Royal National Theatre. ("I've seen feature films which are much more boring than this," a curator raved to the Guardian at the time.) Since then, it's had full length screenings in Chapel Hill, Milan, and for its 50th anniversary, New York. 

Earlier this year, the James Fuentes gallery in Manhattan screened Empire. There, Blake Gopnik watched it all in one sitting, writing in the New York Times that only seeing a few minutes of Empire is like "viewing just a postage-stamp patch on the Mona Lisa." By taking on the 8-hour challenge, Gopnik was rewarded with small discoveries, like how the light sequencing at the top of the nearby Met Life Tower helps the viewer keep track of time, and that the artists' reflections can be seen through the window as they switch film reels.

Now, half a century later, the Empire State Building has been screening the film in its lobby all month. And on Friday, Empire's actual birthday, the top of the tower will light up with thousands of white, sparkling lights to commemorate the night Warhol gave it the star treatment. 

In a world where there is no lack of urban time-lapse videos online displaying the mundane in the most frenzying way possible, Empire is refreshing assuming you have the willpower and free time to watch it properly.

(Andy Warhol, Empire, 1964/The Andy Warhol Museum)    


About the Author

Mark Byrnes
Mark Byrnes

Mark Byrnes is a senior associate editor at CityLab who writes about design, history, and photography.

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