Film Review: ‘Barbara Rubin & The Exploding NY Underground’ Reveals the Real Warhol

Barbara Rubin. Film still.

Credited as the first multimedia experience, Andy Warhol’s “Exploding Plastic Inevitable” was a confluence of live sound by The Velvet Underground with psychedelic images projected over the room, musicians, and audience. It was in your face, on your face, constantly shifting, totally random and truly immersive. Like others, I learned about the work in art school. Captivated by the imagery, I raised my hand. “Who shot the footage in the projections?”

My art history professor, an expert in the field of 60’s and 70’s film, performance, and sculpture, didn’t know. My own research led me to the artist responsible not only for the projections, but for the whole Exploding Plastic Inevitable —and much more.

The forgotten artist, Barbara Rubin, is the subject of Chuck Smith’s new documentary, “Barbara Rubin & The Exploding NY Underground,” opening at Laemmle Theaters in San Francisco and LA on June 14, 2019.

Barbara Rubin’s art exhibited a kinetic energy that dizzied and mesmerized the prominent men around her. Smith’s film paints her as an “influencer” of these figures. The press release for the documentary opens, “In the 1960’s, Dylan, Ginsberg, Warhol and other mostly male icons inspired an entire generation of musicians, poets, filmmakers and artists…but who inspired them?” The film is fun, straight-forward, and informative. It gives the viewer a taste of Rubin’s compelling energy, with the most effective scenes depicting glimpses of reassembled lost footage, and illuminating Rubin’s profound words from letters to friends. Despite its aim of feminist restoration, the documentary also reinforces a misogynist framework that largely defines Rubin’s importance in relation to the famous men she inspired.

For the first half of the film the most repeated sentiment, exclaimed by scholars and peers, is disbelief that the person responsible for these groundbreaking works and ideas was “an 18 year old girl!” To focus on Rubin’s age and gender is diminutive. It reduces her importance to a novelty, as if her work— some of which was later passed off as Warhols’s— would be any less genius had in come from a 38 year old man. Sound bites such as, “We can legitimately say he (Allen Ginsburg) was in awe of her” may seem harmless, but the implication is that it is Ginsburg’s awe that validates Rubin’s stature.

In our market-driven culture, it is tempting to focus on name brand (read: male) artists when discussing Rubin, and perhaps without those men this film would not be able to garner the mainstream attention that Rubin deserves. But it is irresponsible to perpetuate abuses of the truth. For instance, When Rubin brings Bob Dylan to the Factory to shoot his screen test, the voice over interviewee says,  “I think he (Warhol) preferred Barbara be the camera person and he was the producer, the mogul.” Barbara had produced the encounter, shot the film, everything. Yet it’s credited to Warhol because it is the brand of Warhol that makes a work of art matter. It was capital, not just sexism, that sent Rubin into obscurity.

As a graduate student and later a film professor, I rented Rubin’s only surviving film, “Christmas on Earth” (1963) for two educational screenings. Calling “Christmas on Earth” a film is misleading however; it’s more like an experience. The film arrived from The Filmmakers Cooperative on two 16mm reels with an assortment of colored gels and instruction from Rubin attached. The images are formed by simultaneously projecting both reels from two projectors, one image inside the other at half the size, and improvising with the colored gels over the projectors’ lenses. The soundtrack, never mentioned in the documentary, is specified by Rubin as follows: “a radio must be hooked up to a PA system, with a nice cross-section of psychic tumult like an AM rock station, turned on and played loud.” The resulting screening creates a beautiful collaboration through time: Rubin could not have predicted the radio of 2011, but she had created space for it nonetheless. “Christmas on Earth,” like “The Exploding Plastic Inevitable”, is not a static work of art but an unrepeatable cacophony of light, sound, and life force.

The filmmakers cooperative – which houses Rubin’s surviving work, has since made “Christmas on Earth” available as a silent digital file, against the explicit instructions of the artist. Rubin’s screening instruction contained a post script which states, “P.s., PLEASE PROJECT MY FILM IN THE IMAGE IN WHICH IT WAS CREATED– i.e. EXACTLY IN ACCORDANCE WITH THE PROJECTION INSTRUCTIONS! –B.R.” This disregard for the artist’s intention by the institution charged with promoting her work is representative of betrayal implicit but unexplored in the documentary. The famous men Rubin loved never insisted on giving her credit, never advocated for her when she needed them most, and the result for Rubin was financial instability, homelessness, and heartbreak.

We must stop speaking about female artists’ importance in terms of the men they inspired. As long as we continue to frame the story around the flashy names of Rubin’s friends and collaborators, we do no better than the sexist society this film claims to critique. Hopefully the film will open the door for scholars and artists to make the necessary revisions to the history we teach. Rubin’s legacy deserves a permanent place in the canon, as an artist, producer, visionary, and engineer of culture— not just a muse.

Daviel Shy

About Daviel Shy

Daviel Shy an independent scholar, writer, and filmmaker. She has written and directed nine shorts and one feature film, The Ladies Almanack, which premiered at Outfest in 2017 and theatrically at The Roxie Theater in 2018. She taught writing at The Art Institute of Chicago, film at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and Profile of a Radical at the Women’s Center for Creative Work in Los Angeles. Her writing has been published in Performance Research Journal, by Dancing Girl Press, WALLS DIVIDE PRESS and on YES She is an avid self-publisher, with over ten years of zines and mini-comics out on the shelves of various book shops, galleries, and as part of the collection at the Edendale Library. She is the founder of Arts of the Analog, an organization that promotes analog art-making, and LMNOP: Lesbian Movie Night Ongoing Project, running since 2011. She is currently in development on her second feature film, a fable of modern end-times in post-tech San Francisco.
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