The Influence of Art and Performance on the Rise of American Independent Cinema

John Cassavetes Gina Rowland

“As in the other arts in America today – painting, poetry, sculpture, theater, where fresh winds have been blowing for the last few years – our rebellion against the old, official, corrupt and pretentious is primarily an ethical one.”

The above statement, taken from the manifesto of the New American Cinema Group (81) written after their first meeting in 1961, is telling.  In the late 50’s and early 60’s, independent and experimental filmmakers, frustrated with the predictable commercial formulae of Hollywood cinema, began aligning themselves and what they were doing with the art and performance world, where they saw exciting changes taking place.   The original intent of this essay was to attempt to answer the question: How does what was happening in independent and experimental film in the late 50’s and 60’s compare to what was happening in art and performance at the same time? What were the common influences and how did they influence each other?   As I dug into the research, it became obvious that trying to create clean lineages and clearly drawn cause-and-effect statements would be impossible.  Attempting to define cultural influences is like trying to bottle smoke – there are simply too many artists and too many elements contributing to the cultural zeitgeist to confidently make such black and white statements.  The alternative seemed to be the much easier task of making broad generalizations like the late 50’s and 60’s were “when the American avant-garde began to define itself, in opposition to European modernism and to post-war American society,” (“Ages” 10) or that the cultural influences had to do with the ascendance of youth culture, largely due to the popularity of rock n’ roll.

Instead of relying on such generalizations, I decided instead to hone my research to focus on three representative independent filmmakers of the time – John Cassavetes, Bruce Conner, and Andy Warhol – and examine how trends in art and performance influenced their works in particular.  In this way we can hope to extrapolate a larger view by looking at a small cross-section consisting of three artists who, while working in very different ways from each other, all contributed to the changes that took place in American Independent Cinema.

Before looking at the influence of the other arts, it’s worth taking a short look at the technological developments and ideas about media of the time and how they affected each of our filmmakers, for these, perhaps more than any other cultural influences, allowed for the emergence of independent cinema. By the late 50’s, film equipment had become cheaper and more portable – allowing for greater spontaneity in filmmaking.  Cameras and recording equipment were far easier to take on location and do fast guerilla street shooting without the need for long set up times or permits.   As Steve Erickson wrote in Cineaste, “The Nagra tape recorder, which weighed only five kilograms, and lightweight Camiflex and Arriflex cameras made location shooting and hand-held shots much easier. Innovations in film stock enabled directors to work at night and with natural light.” (Erickson 63) These innovations were especially important for an artist like Cassavetes whose style – especially in his film Shadows (1958) – relied so heavily on a spontaneous and improvisational style that caught ‘real’ moments as they happened.

Bruce Conner also exploited this plethora of new technology, but didn’t, however, depend as heavily on the availability of portable shooting equipment since so many of his best known works were created solely from found footage for which he never picked up a camera at all.  He did depend on technology, though, and referred in his work to specific ideas about the media that were prevalent at the time.  1967, the year Conner created Report (1967), one of his most important works, was the same year Marshall McLuhan published The Medium is the Message, and campuses and intellectual circles were buzzing about media effects. Report, a film which is critical of contemporary media while at the same time relying on it, conflates the effects with the media itself, creating what Moritz and O’Neill call “a hypnotic vortex” where there is “no separation possible between a public event and the media through which we come to know of it.” (Moritz and O’Neill 40)

Andy Warhol, primarily known as a painter, also utilized technology and ideas about the media in his films.  Jonas Mekas, an important filmmaker and critic of the era, and known in both independent cinema circles and the avant-garde art/performance scenes was a proponent of “auteurism” in cinema: an “individual controlling sensibility” which defines the work. (Ruoff 6)  Warhol certainly fell into this category although through creative use of modern media technology, Warhol and other filmmakers moved from the role of auteur into what Roy Grundmann calls the “emcee” of the film (48). An example of this is his film Chelsea Girls (1966), in which two different films are shown simultaneously side by side on a wide screen. (Battcock 363) This method came be known as ‘Expanded Cinema,’ which Sheldon Renan coined in 1967, calling it “cinema expanded to the point at which the effect of film may be produced without the use of film at all.” (Joseph 95)  For the next two years, Warhol would continue to experiment with this idea of Expanded Cinema, carrying it into the live performances of his multimedia event,  “Exploding Plastic Inevitable” in which 3-5 films were projected at the same time, often before or during performances of The Velvet Underground, creating “a dislocating, environmental montage where different media interfered and competed with one another, accelerating their distracting, shock like effects to produce the three-dimensional multimedia equivalent of a moiré. (Joseph 81-97)


Cinema, considered by many, if not most, to be an art on par with painting and music, has a long tradition of being influenced by other visual media, and often by the avant-garde or experimental arts of the time.  Writing in Film Culture, Parker Tyler reminds us that “it is important to remember that the phenomenon of the moving photograph appeared at a moment when there took place a radical change in aesthetic taste on a high level: when the Post-Impressionists, the Fauves, the Expressionists and then the Cubists and the Futurists appeared in the visual medium of painting and early films such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and The Passion of Joan of Arc.” (Tyler 48).  In the 50’s and 60’s, the avant-garde film community was a subset of the larger art world.  In New York, this world was unofficially led by Jonas Mekas, mentioned earlier, who can be thought of as the “glue” that held the art and independent film worlds together, at least in New York. His friends and collaborators came from all disciplines: Lou Reed, LeRoi Jones, Stan Brakhage, Norman Mailer, Richard Serra, Andy Warhol, and Yoko Ono, just to name a few.   This diverse community created a synergy between disciplines in which each creatively fed the others.   Consequently, visual artists and filmmakers alike were all influenced by changes and developments in the art world.   Willie Varela, in The Journal of Film and Video, reports that “filmmakers who started working after World War II constituted a movement as powerful and significant as the abstract expressionists in painting.  And the abstract expressionists changed painting and shifted the center of the art world from Europe to America.”   Regardless, he continues, these new filmmakers “would not receive, with a couple of exceptions, the same level of recognition and support that the abstract-expressionist painters received.” (Varela 4).  In addition to this parallel between new independent filmmakers and the abstract expressionist, there were plenty of other art world influences that fed the new generation of filmmakers.   One of these was Fluxus, “the New York based avant-garde group of the mid 1960’s, [who] used the streets as a stage, offering concerts, improvisations, happenings, poetry readings in public monuments, areas designed for transit or in dead, unused spaces like empty lots.” (Suarez 30).  This guerilla style had important influences on the new generation of filmmakers, in particular on Cassavetes who, although it’s claimed that he did “not get along with the New York avant-garde,” (Maslin 17), was certainly not immune to its influence.   But perhaps the most important influence of Fluxus on the Independent Cinema scene was it’s defiance of convention.   Having their roots in Dada and artists like Duchamp and Cage, Fluxus artists challenged all conventions whether they were of definitions of art or the relationship between art and audience. (MacDonald 3)

When speaking of Fluxus, artist Allan Kaprow described them as, “relatively free of ego.  There was a tendency to avoid stardom or cameo performances; anyone was free to interpret them as she or he wished.” (“Ages” 54).  These words could also be used to describe Cassavetes films, particularly Shadows.   Carney reminds us that “the narrative even-handedness prevents any one figure from ‘starring’ or relegating the others to merely ‘supporting’ status.” (Carney Shadows 54).  In a piece in the Kenyon review, Carney also states “all of [Cassavetes’] films are about finding possibilities of emotional spontaneity and susceptibility in a world which relentlessly mechanizes behavior.” (Carney “Adventure” 117).  In this way, Cassavetes also aligns himself somewhat with the aesthetic of the abstract expressionist movement of the late 50’s, which prioritized a “primordial experience through the gestural amorphous qualities of paint on canvas.” (Rorimer 12)

Conner’s work, which is often described as collage, also has parallels with abstract expressionism.  Although it’s one of his films for which he actually shot the footage, his short film The White Rose (1967) has been described by Greil Marcus as “almost as a collage of still photos.” (64) The film is a 9-minute documentary of the removal of Jay DeFeo’s 2000-pound painting, The Rose, from the artist’s apartment.   Conner, a friend of the artist, described her construction of the painting: “As she did the painting she would take the paint off – this combination of black paint with white and red. The footstool that she worked on – standing up – was covered with this. The entire place was the same color and the floor was covered.  She’d take off lumps of this paint, and throw it on the floor.” (Marcus 64).  This description sounds similar to the way Jackson Pollack – arguably the most famous of the abstract expressionists – worked; and the creation of the DeFeo work as been described as “more ritual than art – an enactment of truth.” (Marcus 64-65).  In “Fallout,” Moritz and O’Neill call out Conner’s relationship to expressionism explicitly, claiming, “Conner’s art has defined a trend in American expressionism” (39).  Indeed, when one compares the works of Bruce Conner to the iconoclastic collagists such as Rauschenberg – the influence is undeniable.

The films of Warhol must be differentiated from his pop art painting, as the two different media in which he worked reflect two sets of influences.  As with Conner and Cassavetes, we can see expressionist influences – Gregory Battcock specifically calls out his “travelogue-y” color combinations and says of Chelsea Girls, “the most important feature differentiating it from other inter-media operations (including those of Whitman, Ranier, Cage, Paxton, and Rauschenberg) is probably that The Chelsea Girls takes place in a movie theater.” (364) Another main influence of Warhol’s films was minimalism, which can be seen in Empire (1964), an 8-hour film of a single fixed shot on the Empire State Building, and Sleep (1963), a 5-hour document of a man sleeping.  As Amy Taubin wrote, “the minimalists were making very large paintings and sculptures; Warhol made very long films.” (22)


When one considers the underground performance scene of the 50’s and (especially) the 60’s – two ideas can be considered to represent the radical happenings of the time: improvisation and ritual.  Allan Kaprow, a pioneer of early performance art in New York, describes the scene as “a loose group of artists sharing for a few moments a kind of blissful energy which welcomed an opening up of art to the everyday environment, and to the use of throwaway garbage found on the streets at night.  We liked the idea of brevity, of the spontaneous.” (“Ages” 54)  This description has resonance especially in the films of Cassavetes and Conner – Cassavetes because of his use of improvisation, and Conner through his reassemblage of the detritus of media and culture.   Whether or not Cassavetes’ actors actually improvised on camera, his use of improvisation and spontaneity as a method of creating the narrative, as well as presenting the effect of improvisation in his films, is a defining characteristic of his work.   To Cassavetes, the act of creating art and the act of living were one in the same. (Berliner 9)  In his films, we see the characters themselves not conforming to a Hollywood convention of reality but instead throwing away “all of the preformulated scripts of life and [becoming] improvisers of their own identities and relationships.” (Carney “Adventures” 117) According to Carney, making meaning in the moment “could be said to be the masterplot of all Cassavetes’ films.”  (116)

One of the New York theatre troupes that were doing pioneering work in improvisation as performance in the 60’s was The Living Theatre, founded in 1947 by Judith Malina and Julian Beck, an abstract-expressionist painter of the New York school.  The Living Theatre used the philosophy of the French dramatist Antonin Artaud as the basis of much of their work, much of it largely improvisational, such as Paradise Now, and Tonight, We Improvise.  Much of Artaud’s philosophy, which the Living Theatre espoused, was based in the idea of theatre-as-ritual, meant to reinforce the notion of art-as-experience, and reintroduce the sacred into an art that had become mundane.   There was a fair amount of intermingling between the avant-garde film scene and that of the Living Theatre, with the latter often providing their theatre space for screenings.  In fact, in 1965, Mekas made an award-winning film, The Brig (1965) based on one of the Living Theatre’s original performances (Stoller 38).   The idea of ritual and art-as-experience bled into the film scene as well.  Some critics even considered this idea of ritual as essential to avant-garde film.  In a Film Culture article, Parker Tyler wrote, “the chief problem of film experimentalism is to find in ordinary behavior…those prime sources of ritual and myth where humanity refreshes and revitalizes itself as in a mystic bath.” (Tyler 50)  Even John Cassavetes, who denied any involvement in the avant-garde at the time, allows that his films break from the Hollywood tradition by creating film-as-experience, rather than entertainment.  He said, “People have said that my films are not easy, that they are not ‘Entertainment,’ but experiences you are put through.” (Carney 113)  Compare this with Julian Beck, co-founder of the Living Theatre, in his book The Life of the Theatre:  “To observe only and not to act: to be reduced to less than life:  naturally the linear reading society would tend this way.  It is time to move on.”

Conner, as well, can be seen to espouse an experiential philosophy in his films.  In Report, he all but dispenses with narrative altogether and instead creates a collage that manipulates our senses, creating a modern ritual that plays with time and affects us in a way that transcends reason.  Greil Marcus has commented that, in Conner’s films, “sometimes the pileup of images creates a sense of no-time, of time suspended, and this is where the sense of religious ritual takes place.”  (65) In looking at the films of Warhol under the lens of ritual, we can certainly surmise that his intermedia event, The Exploding Plastic Inevitable – in which his films played an important part – is a ritual of sorts.  In the case of the EPI, the performances seems to have been meant to short circuit the rational mind and play directly to the senses by combining film, live music and performance (there were often ‘dancers’ on stage while the Velvet Underground played facing away from the audience.)


By no means is this essay meant to represent the full spectrum of influences that led to the movements of Independent Cinema or avant-garde film – those are far too numerous and outside the scope of this paper.  Any comprehensive examination would need to include a response to the French New Wave; the political, social and intellectual climate of the time including Vietnam, civil rights, and the rise of Marxist theory; and the artists’ reaction to the conventions of Hollywood cinema, among many others.  Here we have examined only two aspects of the American cultural landscape of the late 50’s and early 60’s and the effects those may have had on only three individual artists.  As we’ve seen, each has been influenced by similar phenomena, but often in very different ways.  While Cassavetes may have extracted value from the improvisational aspects of Fluxus, Conner may have been more aligned with expressionism and Warhol with minimalism.  And this is only one way to connect the dots, for culture doesn’t follow such clear patterns; theories of influences are always shaky and can only be made in hindsight.

Works Cited

“Ages of the Avant-Garde.” Performing Arts Journal 16.1 (Jan, 1994): 9-57. Print.

Battcock, Gregory. “Notes on The Chelsea Girls: A Film by Andy Warhol.” Art Journal 26.4 (Summer, 1967): 363-365. Print.

Berliner, Todd. “Hollywood Movie Dialogue and the ‘Real Realism’ of John Cassavetes.” Film Quarterly 52.3 (Spring, 1999): 2-16. Print.

Beck, Julian. The Life of the Theatre. San Francisco: City Lights. 1972. Print.

Carney, Ray. Shadows. British Film Institute. 2000. Print.

Carney, Ray. “The Adventure of Insecurity.” Kenyon Review 13.2 (1991): 102-121. Military & Government Collection. EBSCO. Web. 25 Apr. 2010.

Erickson, Steve. Rev. of Revolution! The Explosion of World Cinema in the Sixties by Peter Cowie. Cineaste 30.1 (2004): 62. MAS Ultra – School Edition. EBSCO. Web. 25 Apr. 2010. Print.

Grundmann, Roy. “Masters of Ceremony: Media Demonstration as Performance in Three Instances of Expanded Cinema.” Velvet Light Trap No. 54 (Fall, 2004): 48-64. Print.

Joseph, Branden W. “My Mind Split Open”: Andy Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable.” Grey Room 8 (2002): 80-107.Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Web. 25 Apr. 2010.

MacDonald, Scott, and Yoko Ono. “Yoko Ono: Ideas on Film.” Film Quarterly 43.1 (Autumn, 1989): 2-23. Print.

Marcus, Greil. “Ritual in Transfigured Time.” Film Comment 41.1 (2005): 62-66. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Web. 25 Apr. 2010.

Maslin, Janet. “Cassavetes, A Model of Defiance.” The New York Times 19 Feb. 1989: Page 17. Print.

Mortiz, William, and Beverly O’Neill. “Fallout: Some Notes on the Films of Bruce Conner.” Film Quarterly. 31.4 (Summer, 1978): 36-42. Print.

Rorimer, Anne. New Art in the 60s and 70s: Redefining Reality. London: Thames and Hudson. 2001. Print.

Ruoff, Jeffrey K. “Home Movies of the Avant-Garde: Jonas Mekas and the New York Art World.” Cinema Journal 30.3 (Spring 1991): 6-28.  Print.

Stoller, James. “Beyond Cinema: Notes on Some Films by Andy Warhol.” Film Quarterly 20.1 (Autumn, 1966): 35-38. Print.

Suarez, Juan A. Bike Boys, Drag Queens, and Superstars: Avant-Garde, Mass Culture, and Gay Identities in the 1960’s Underground Cinema. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. 1996. Print.

Taubin, Amy. “My Time is Not Your Time.” Sight and Sound 4.6 (1994): 20-25. Print.

“The First Statement of the New American Cinema Group.” Film Culture Reader. Ed. P. Adams Sitney. New York: Cooper Square Press. 2000. 79-83. Print.

Tyler, Parker. “A Preface to the Problems of the Experimental Film.” Film Culture Reader. Ed. P. Adams Sitney. New York: Cooper Square Press. 2000. 42-51. Print.

Varela, Willie. “We Will Not Go Quietly: Some Thoughts on the Avant-Garde, Then and Now.”  Journal of Film and Video 57.1-2 (Spring/Summer 2005): 3-8. Print.

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