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The films of Warhol’s lost lover rediscovered: A documentary on Danny Williams

Esther Robinson’s engrossing movie includes footage of several of Williams’ films

In summer 1966, Danny Williams, former live-in lover of Andy Warhol, and a one-time key member of the artist’s Factory entourage, returned to his ­family home near the coast at Rockport, Massachusetts. His relationship with Warhol had ended and he had been frozen out of the artist’s inner circle. On 26 July Williams went for a drive in his mother’s car. His clothes and the car keys were later discovered near the shore. He was never seen again.

In 2000, Williams’s niece, Esther Robinson, was working for a New York-based ­non-profit organisation that supports emerging artists.

The project received financial support from the Warhol Foundation, as well as office space. When Robinson’s grandmother visited the office one day, she mentioned that her son, Danny, had lived with Warhol. Warhol staffers urged Robinson to contact Callie Angell, curator of the Andy Warhol Film Project based at the Whitney Museum of American Art, and author of the catalogue raisonné of Warhol’s films.

Ms Angell had identified six or seven titles in the Warhol archive that were clearly attributed to Danny Williams. “The real distinction was that they [were clearly labelled] ‘A Dan Williams Film’,” she told The Art Newspaper. “They had titles and were edited…There’s nothing else in the collection that falls into that category. They’re good films, they’re interesting and I think they had some influence on Warhol’s film-making.” According to Ms Angell, the Warhol Foundation had been considering giving all non-Warhol attributed films to the Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh. Then she was approached by Esther Robinson.

For Robinson, it was the start of a seven-year project that would see her investigate why Williams had been almost totally written out of the Warhol and Factory histories, petition MoMA to gain access to the films and, finally, be able to show them to his ­mother—her grandmother—only hours before her death. In February, Robinson’s engrossing documentary, “A Walk into the Sea: Danny Williams and the Warhol Factory”, which includes footage of several of Williams’ films, was ­premiered at the Berlin Film Festival where it won the Teddy award for best gay-themed documentary. Danny Williams’s films also received their first stand-alone public screening ever.

According to Robinson, simply extracting the films from the MoMA archives, was an uphill struggle. She says that despite two years of persistent requests the films were not forthcoming. “MoMA wouldn’t release them directly to us,” Robinson told The Art Newspaper. “I think I had a five-to-one ratio of emails and calls to responses. The two-year delay doesn’t seem long on paper, but my grandmother died eight hours after seeing those films.”

“I want to be compassionate to those people who work at MoMA,” she says, “because I know they have an incredible job on and it’s really tough to be entrusted with thousands of titles. But there are larger issues of access that need to be questioned. The Warhol Foundation interceded on our behalf, asked for the return of the material [from MoMA] and then gave them back to us.”

In a statement to The Art Newspaper, MoMA says: “Ms Robinson first made contact with the Museum about this project in October 2001. This initial contact was to view 20 reels of film in the Museum’s Warhol Collection holdings that she claimed were actually the work of her uncle, Danny Williams. When the department’s archival staff reviewed this request, they agreed with Ms Robinson and the Warhol Foundation on the ownership of these works, deaccessioned all 20 reels and sent them to the Warhol Foundation in December 2002.”

Researching the facts of Warhol’s life is never easy. “There’s [a] force in the public representation of Warhol to deny him a sexual identity… as an art commodity he’s safer as a non-­sexualised person.

I think there’s incredible ­vested interests in that,” says Robinson. “In the Warhol archive there’s a 50-year moratorium on the audio tapes. There’s audio material with Andy speaking directly to Danny that if you could hear it then, you would know the nature of their relationship. Their intimate relationship.”

Joel Wachs, president of the Warhol Foundation, says the 50-year moratorium is intended “to protect the rights of privacy of individual third persons”. He says he has “absolutely no knowledge” of the tapes’ contents. To Robinson’s “vested interest” claims, he responded: “She is full of prunes. It’s ­simply not true.”

However, Robinson argues that: “If you have materials—the audio materials are a good example—that would normally be a citation tool, that cannot be cited, you’re blocking a whole level of understanding.”

Despite the difficulties in gaining control of source material, Robinson did find herself in possession of footage of the Velvet Underground by Williams that not only had never been seen, but hadn’t even been developed—Williams had been lighting director for the “Exploding Plastic Inevitable” shows featuring the group. “Among the ­materials that the Warhol Foundation requested to be returned [from MoMA] were five rolls of film that had been shot but not processed. They were sealed up, they were taped. Danny was quite meticulous…I was the first person to see the footage. That’s the connection I felt with Danny.”

Robinson’s principle motivation is for the films—hers and particularly Williams’s—simply to be seen. “My goal is for them to travel in tandem like they did at Berlin. We’re trying to do a sidebar of Danny’s films at Tribeca. I want to get them as widely studied as ­possible. He was a young artist; he was 26. He made movies for six months. Danny was a ­precocious talent and…he ­wasn’t able to realise that next step. But I think it’s indisputable that the talent is there.”

o “A Walk into the Sea: Danny Williams and the Warhol Factory” will show at the Hot Docs documentary film festival in Toronto, Canada (www.hotdocs.ca) on 24 and 26 April, and at New York’s Tribeca Film Festival (www.tribecafilmfestival.com) on 28 and 30 April, and on 1, 2 and 4 May. www.awalkintothesea.com

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Rediscovered: the films of Warhol’s lost lover'