Thank you for suggesting that I write for Film Culture about the origin of my TREE MOVIE. There is very little to write and I think that this letter ought to be sufficient.
TREE MOVIE was written, as you know, early in January, 1961. It is one of several works written around that time that were strongly influenced by the works and ideas of La Monte Young (as well as by those of John Cage, who has been a continuing influence on my work since 1954). The idea of a movie consisting of a continuous view of the same object seems to me to be directly derived from such compositions as La Monte’s Composition 1960 Number 7 (July 1960), which instructs performers to hold a certain fifth “for a long time”. Cage had shown me copies of several of La Monte’s 1960 pieces before the latter came to New York in the fall of 1960, and Richard Maxfield had introduced me to La Monte that fall during a performance of the simultaneous version of my Stanzas for Iris Lezak (May-Oct., 1960) at the Phase 2 coffeehouse (a performance in which Julian Beck, John Coe, Spencer Holst, Iris Lezak, Judith Malina, and Myself, who read from the separated stanzas of the poems in the group—our delivery being regulated by playing cards and number cards—and also played musical instruments and noisemakers). Soon afterwards, La Monte and I became friends and we collaborated in the series of concerts which he arranged at Yoko Ono’s loft on Chambers St. (Oct? 1960-June 1961), which included my first two one-man concerts (8-9 April 1961). TREE MOVIE was a product of this period of intense activity, performances, and collaboration with La Monte. The idea of accepting anything which happened in front of the camera while it was focused on a tree or any other object for a long time was, of course, influenced by John (as well as by Zen and by Taoism). That’s all there is to say about its origins.
As for its influence on Andy Warhol’s movies—I think that’s a myth. Both you in your recent letter (in which you claim that Mr. Warhol’s films “are of course exact copies of your TREE FILM concept”) and your friend the Danish composer Eric Anderson in his article “On New York’s Avant-Garde”, published in the Goeteberg magazine Paletten (number1—1967) speak of this influence as a fact, but I think it is, at best, a conjecture. I don’t know Mr. Warhol (Ray Johnson introduced us at Naomi Levine’s house in about 1964, but we haven’t met since then) and don’t know how he could have gotten a copy of TREE MOVIE. The only copies “in circulation” were the one I gave to Jimmy Waring at the Japan Society in Spring 1961 and the one I gave you late in Summer 1961 while we were typing La Monte’s Anthology at Harout’s loft on Water St. I doubt that either of these were ever seen by Mr. Warhol. It was not published in V TRE (the Fluxus newspaper) until January 1964 and I believe that his SLEEP movie (the first, I think, of his static films) had already been produced by then. Besides, SLEEP seems to consist of several long sequences that are repeated over and over rather than of one continuous view of the sleeper. The only one that seems like TREE MOVIE is his Empire State Building movie, which I haven’t seen, but which is said to consist of a continuous view of the building. The only direct connection between TREE MOVIE and Andy Warhol that I know of is the copy of V TRE which I gave to Gerry Malanga at a rehearsal soon after the paper was published. But again—hadn’t Mr. Warhol made the SLEEP movie, and possibly other static films, before that?
Of course, if Andy Warhol says he was influenced by TREE MOVIE, it must be so, but I have never heard that he has ever said that. It seems much more likely that he, like myself, was influenced by the 1960 compositions of La Monte Young, with whom he’s been acquainted for a number of years. On the other hand, it is just possible that La Monte or Jimmy Waring or you may have told him about TREE MOVIE or shown him a copy of it. Who knows?
The main thing is that the who-did-it-first-ism of the so-called “avant-garde” (a term I myself dislike intensely) is sickening and irrelevant. If Mr. Warhol’s productive career as a movie-maker was somehow set off by my TREE MOVIE I’m flattered indeed, but I have no reason to think that it was.
A letter written by Jackson Mac Low to George Maciunas in 1976.