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.
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.
Ryan Murphy has wonderful taste, yet often ruins things with his uniquely awful execution. But I always go into his projects hoping for the best, and am occasionally surprised. I hope so much that he has not wrecked The Andy Warhol Diaries, which are so important to me. Already, I find the use of Andy's voice via AI really questionable (though I think Warhol would love it).
I'll watch for sure.
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