Six hours and it isn't even repetitive! (Image via Netflix)
Andy Warhol has long been one of my biggest inspirations — as a hoarder, an image junkie and as an editor (his eye was everything), all of which can go hand-in-hand.
Aa an adolescent, I was instantly turned on by his output from the moment it registered with me. He was fond of saying his work was about nothing, but to me, there was plenty of there there — and still is. I just know that looking at it, it seems to be looking back. The presence of a sly, sometimes dark, often unyielding point of view is immediately identifiable, so it is not surprising he has been called, arguably, the 20th century's most impactful artist.
He became famous painting images of Campbell's soup cans, so it is also not surprising he has been smeared as a con artist and empty vessel by cretinous critics like Robert Hughes.
When I was in high school in the '80s, Warhol was enjoying a renaissance, and everyone in my art class was enamored of him. One girl, younger than I, was a fan of Warhol's in the same way other girls were fans of Duran Duran. When he suddenly died of gall bladder surgery complications — hard to remember the white-wigged icon wasn't even 60 years old — I told her I was sorry to hear about Andy Warhol ... and her eyes widened and she asked, “What about Andy Warhol?” See, the Internet wasn't a thing yet and she hadn't heard. (Today, she's a Trumper, following, in a weird way, the journey Warhol's art sort of did for a while there, from iconoclasty to money drenched elitism.)
I was sad, too, feeling I had missed an era. I was already planning to move to NYC when I could, and had fantasies of meeting Warhol — not totally out of the question, considering his fondness for new transplants — but that could never happen. He died just over a year before my first trip to the city, and just over five years before I moved here. I was simply too late.
These are tucked into my copy of the book. (Image by Matthew Rettenmund)
In college, my fascination continued. When The Andy Warhol Diaries, edited by Pat Hackett, was published in May 1989, I scraped together the $29.95 and bought a first edition. I also bought the magazines Spy and Fame for their hastily assembled indices (the book came with none, forcing the reader to look for famous names page by page, and forcing famous names to look for themselves the same way). I devoured the book, mesmerized by Warhol's deadpan recitation of taxi receipts intertwined with rote-seeming rundowns of unimaginably fabulous events, occasionally sprinkled with out-of-nowhere cattiness (I knew an editor who was called out in the book for a bathroom hookup), hints of lust and historically important documentation of the artist's every move.
I've loved Warhol for a long time, so I was nervous to watch the Netflix adaptation The Andy Warhol Diaries, which streams March 9.
Written and directed by Andrew Rossi (whose résumé is filled with dead-serious, New York-centric docs), it is executive produced by Ryan Murphy, whose disregard for facts in his sometimes entertaining dramatizations was a red flag. Also alarming, the series makes use of an AI recreation of Warhol's voice, which is used liberally to recite passages from the Diaries, a gambit that made me fear it would be like paying to see a hologram tour.
But The Andy Warhol Diaries shares more in common with Circus of Books than with, say, The Assassination of Gianni Versace, with Rossi using the spirit of the Diaries as his guide in revealing things about Warhol most of us could never have otherwise known. As for the synthesized voice, Warhol's deadpan delivery was uniquely suited to robotic resurrection — I stopped remembering it wasn't actually him speaking early on.
Spread across six meaty episodes — at times, and I never say this about anything, it feels like six hours isn't enough — the series is unlikely to disappoint any serious Warhol fan or scholar, in part because the interviewees are carefully chosen from among Warhol's closest confidantes (Hackett herself, assistant Benjamin Liu, Interview magazine editor Bob Colacello, the surviving twin brothers of Warhol's two great loves) and thoughtful, curious employees of his estate, who are intimately acquainted with his work and are not regurgitating platitudes — or white-washing his imperfections.
The series touches on everything from the Factory to fights at Interview (oof, that Nancy Reagan cover) to Warhol's politics, his views on race, gender and sexual orientation, his early meeting with Steve Jobs and the arc of his career as an artist and provocateur. And there is plenty of space for thousands of exquisitely well-timed and masterfully curated vintage video clips.
But it is most revealing when it is about Andy Warhol the man as it unmasks Andy Warhol the artist.
“I've got these desperate feelings that nothing means anything,” the AI voice intones early on, throwing down the gauntlet to challenge both the idea that Warhol and his art were meaningless (an idea he himself often floated), and the idea that Warhol created in a void of human sentiment.
“Bill Blass was there. And Pat Buckley wearing Bill Blass. Everybody looked so old.”
Episode 1 sets the tone, exploring Warhol's sexual orientation and its relationship to his work and to the commerce of his work in the context of the '60s, '70s and '80s, exploring his upbringing, recalling his Factory glory and focusing deeply on his romantic relationship with Jed Johnson, who went on to become a successful interior designer, but who initially swept floors for him.
The almost-assassination that succeeded 20 years later. (Image via NYDN)
It ends with Valerie Solanis shooting him, an attempted assassination that arguably succeeded when he died at 58, his insides forever scrambled by her desperate act.
Part of his charmless offensive. (Image via Moderna Museet)
The episode includes insights from Debbie Harry, John Waters, Rob Lowe (why? though he becomes more interesting by series' end), Michael Chow, Mariel Hemingway, Luc Sante, Fab 5 Freddy, a sanctimonious Jerry Hall (now married to Rupert Murdoch) and many others, but it is artist and series MVP Glenn Ligon who is the spirit of this endeavor. He understands Warhol as a creator, he is able to observe Warhol as a gay man (“the right kind of gay — not in the streets, lobbying Congress, protesting”), and yet he does not judge; there is a respect and admiration, as well as some cynicism. He sees Warhol, and so does the series.
The biggest surprise for me is how deeply and unflinchingly the series delves into Warhol's sex and love lives, and how thoughtfully it explores whether he was out, why he often pretended to be asexual (“Sex is too much work”), what sex may have looked like for him and how important being in love was to him, and not just in love with Matt Dillon's eyebrows or Bianca Jagger's lip line. Another director (or gossip columnist or lazy art critic) might write off Warhol's relationships with men half his age as predatory or empty or the product of a mid-life crisis, but we are presented with a wealth of evidence that the truth was far more nuanced and infinitely sweeter, if unconventional.
“Remember when Tom Tryon used to live across the street and I would watch him through his window, writing?”
Episode 2 is especially compelling on the subject of Warhol and love. When he was living with Jed Johnson, Johnson apparently wanted Warhol — of all people — to be more demonstrative, a friction that tore them apart and led to Johnson moving on to architect Alan Wanzenberg, with whom he remained until his death on TWA flight 800 in 1996. Though Warhol and Johnson had been inseparable, it would appear Warhol's cooling career in the '70s and his insistence on being immersed in Studio 54 culture only enhanced his impenetrability. “People think artists are disposable,” Warhol told his Diaries in the context of his career ups and downs, and it feels like he unconsciously treated Johnson as disposable — or at least took him for granted.
“Ugly people are just as hard to get as pretty people. They don't want you either.
In Episode 3, Warhol is rebounding dramatically with an attachment to Paramount executive Jon Gould. (“Who?” Hall asks, revealing the surface nature of her relationship with Warhol.) Gould was the strapping rebound love Warhol dedicated himself to, the person for whom he became unafraid to express affection or to profess love; Johnson had taught him the consequences of failing to evolve. It would appear Warhol had to work overtime to win Gould over, sending him roses and gifts, but ultimately luring him with kindness and a safe space. Along with a 25-year age gap, Gould had a fraught relationship with his sexuality, resolutely maintaining he was straight in spite of a mountain of evidence to the contrary. The series beautifully digs into their bond, using interviews with Gould's surviving twin brother, Gould's poetry and Warhol's letters to him, all of which fly in the face of Gould's public image. He forbade Warhol from dictating any private details about their lives to his Diaries, which Warhol circumvented by calling him “Paramount.”
The episode is one of the most revelatory for other reasons, too, featuring Ligon's insightful analysis of Warhol's 1975 Ladies and Gentlemen series, touching on issues of cultural appopriation and unequal power (he paid drag queens and trans people $50 to pose, then made tens of thousands on the resulting canvasses), while still underscoring Warhol's genuine emotional attachment to the work.
It also rightly places Warhol as a spiritual inventor of everything from MTV (artist and contemporary Kenny Scharf bluntly states, “He created MTV!”) via Andy Warhol's TV to social media's unapologetic exploration of the self. I would have loved for Rossi to note how something like Jørgen Leth's “Andy Warhol Eating a Hamburger” from 66 Scenes from America (1982) prefigured mukbang and TikTok and Hot Ones, but the point is made and could probably sustain a series of its own.
The right kind of gay (Image via Netflix)
“A few years into a decade is when it really becomes a decade. The '80s, they'll be looking over all the people and picking out the ones that'll survive. It's when the people will either become a part of the future or a part of the past.”
Episode 4 concentrates on how Warhol clawed his way back into relevance, a not wholly uncreative prospect. He was clearly, from Diaries entries, flummoxed and out of ideas (or so he thought), and in the same way pop stars enlist younger duet partners (preferably rappers) to goose their brands, Warhol was attracted to people like Jean-Michel Basquiat and also Keith Haring to do the same for his.
It wasn't a hit — but later, observers realized it was a knockout. (Image via Tony Shafrazi Gallery)
With Basquiat, it was a manufactured meeting that turned into a genuine friendship and collaboration, albeit one marred when their famous dual exhibition at the Tony Shafrazi Gallery led to a dismissive review in The New York Times that called Basquiat an art world “mascot,” forever damaging their bond.
“I've got to believe in something because things could always be worse.”
In Episode 5, there is more of a focus on the unfolding AIDS crisis, and a closer look at Warhol's views on the disease (unsurprisingly, the lifelong Catholic who'd never participated in random hookups had an unenlightened, something unempathetic, selfish approach to AIDS initially, mostly worrying about catching it from shared glasses or from mingling with more sexually active protégés).
Warhol regretted never putting Hudson on Interview's cover once Hudson's AIDS diagnosis leaked. (Image via NYP)
The episode also documents the further crumbling of Warhol's friendship with Basquiat, who in one Diaries entry he uncharitably describes in a racially dismissive way, while in so many others he calls him an effortless architect of masterpieces.
“Life is not worth living if you're not healthy.”
Finally, Episode 6 walks us through not only Warhol's death following major gall bladder surgery, but also the fallout for those around him. It begins with Warhol, deeply wounded, recounting a beautiful young girl ripping his wig off him at a book signing.
If it feels like a precursor to The End, so does one of Warhol's truly outstanding archivists walking us through his Last Supper late-in-life masterpieces and how his reference to “The Big C” was inarguably about gay cancer. In an uncomfortable sequence, close friend and interviewee Christopher Makos can't wrap his head around the idea that Warhol's work would have that much (or any?) meaning, even though it was completed the year Warhol's last love, Gould, died of AIDS at 33.
Warhol's final trip abroad and a deeply unsatisfying public appearance at a fashion show at the Tunnel with Miles Davis, just two days before his death, are bleak stuff. Even in his written Diaries entries, he sounds utterly defeated, though he never lets on he is about to undergo surgery; Hackett had to reveal that in an editor's note, and this is as good a time as any for the series to air grievances about Hackett's motivations, which are debated briefly.
Andy Warhol is dead. (Image via Netflix)
Most of us know what became of those around Warhol, but the series has so much love for its subject, it spills over into generous concern about those around him, which in turn contextualizes not only Andy Warhol, but Andy Warhola, the gay experience and a good chunk of the history of modern art.
In short, The Andy Warhol Diaries, to paraphrase John Waters in his observation of Warhol himself, makes you see Warhol in a completely different way — and that's what art is, isn't it?
Even in death, note he was called a “media genius,” and “prince of pop art” — not an artist. (Image via NYP)