Warhol’s Surf World

Nearly 45 years after filming, Andy Warhol’s lost surf movie is completed

Two of the stars of Andy Warhol's San Diego Surf.

In 1968, Andy Warhol and a handful of eccentric actors left the bustle of New York City to make a film along the beaches of La Jolla, California. The movie would become San Diego Surf, a film about a New York couple that moves to La Jolla and befriends a group of local surfers. But when Warhol returned to his factory in New York to edit the film, he was shot and nearly killed, and the project was shelved indefinitely. The footage collected dust for almost 30 years, until it was given to The Andy Warhol Museum in 1996. Paul Morrissey was commissioned to finish the final edits to San Diego Surf, and in 2012 Andy Warhol's last film was finally completed.

Andy Warhol was not a surfer. If you look at a photo of Warhol in the '60s, you will see a frail man with the kind of pasty flesh that could only belong to an avid New York City indoorsman. But Warhol was a purveyor of popular culture above all else, and in the '60s when movies like Gidget and Beach Blanket Bingo became prominent within the sphere of pop culture, Warhol decided to give the surf genre a makeover.

"Warhol had interacted with surfers before he made the film. They had come from Los Angeles and stopped by The Factory in New York," says Geralyn Huxley, the Curator of Film and Video at the Andy Warhol Museum. "At that time, Warhol was trying to make these genre films: he had gone to Arizona and made his version of a western called Lonesome Cowboys. Around then, surfing movies were really popular in American culture. It was like the zeitgeist of the '60s, and Warhol was always looking for a new trend to address in his art."

Although the film is set in the surf scene in La Jolla, San Diego Surf is not really a surf story. In fact, the movie isn't much of a "story" at all in the traditional sense. We are, after all, talking about a director who made a five-hour film of a man sleeping. San Diego Surf is an experimental narrative, which follows Mr. Mead, Susan Hoffman, and their new surfer friends as they hang out at the beaches around Windansea, having mostly nonsensical conversations about surfing and their love lives. Things get weird pretty quickly as characters flirt with each other and everyone's sexual orientation gets a bit ambiguous. The bizarre spectacle culminates in a scene in a shaping bay where Mr. Mead convinces a young surfer named Tom to stand on a surfboard and urinate on his head. Afterward, Mr. Mead turns to the camera intensely and says, "I'm a real surfer now."

Andy Warhol is widely regarded as one of the greatest American artists of all time, but it would be tough to attribute any deeper meaning to San Diego Surf, and it's doubtful that the film is going to win him any new fans in the surf world. For the casual viewer, the best-case scenario is that San Diego Surf will bore you to tears, and the worst case is that it will severely freak you out. However, if you are a fan of Warhol's other films, or are just into that sort of thing, San Diego Surf will be screening at the New York Museum of Modern Art from January 23-28. Click here for show times. The film will also be shown at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego , click here for more info.