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Will We Ever Really Know Who Andy Warhol Was? A New Docuseries Digs Into His Private Life

9 minute read

In the kind of backhanded obituary that would today provoke a social media furor, the estimable and exacting TIME art critic Robert Hughes described Andy Warhol as a “living transparency, with his face pressed to the shop widow of the American dream and his head full of schemes to titillate an aging, youth-obsessed American culture.” Wary of the commodification of art, Hughes portrayed Warhol as equal parts charlatan, savant, and sphinx. “The cranking out of designed objects of desire was so faithfully mirrored in Warhol’s images and so approvingly mimicked in his sense of culture,” he wrote, “that no one, in fact, could be sure what he thought.”

Among his fans as well as his critics, the image of Warhol as an impenetrable enigma has persisted for as long as he’s been a household name, from his Pop heyday in the 1960s to his untimely death in 1987, all the way up through the present. Certainly, the artist played that part to the hilt, constantly appearing in public with an expression of glassy-eyed enchantment and some faux-naive musings to dispense in a breathless near-monotone: “I love Los Angeles. I love Hollywood. They’re beautiful. Everybody’s plastic, but I love plastic. I want to be plastic.”

But just because an artist denies the public access to their interiority, doesn’t mean they are unknowable. Beyond the obfuscation, there is a personality, a perspective, and, most of the time, a constellation of authentic interpersonal relationships. That private side is the focus of the sprawling, brilliantly executed Netflix docuseries The Andy Warhol Diaries, from director Andrew Rossi (Page One: Inside The New York Times) and executive producer Ryan Murphy.

Framed by the daily journal entries that Warhol dictated to writer Pat Hackett during the final decade of his life, which were posthumously published in edited form, the series offers perhaps the most intimate view of the 20th century’s most ubiquitous artist that has ever been seen on screen. Throughout six episodes that range from around 50 to nearly 80 minutes but rarely feel excessive, an AI simulation of Warhol’s voice reads some of the most revealing passages from the diary. (Perhaps to preempt the kind of criticism the makers of a recent Anthony Bourdain film faced for simulating their subject’s voice, Rossi notes this choice at the beginning of the doc and quotes a Warholism: “Machines have less problems. I’d rather be a machine, wouldn’t you?”) “I’ve got these desperate feelings that nothing means anything,” the computerized Andy drones, quoting a diary entry from 1981. How’s that for sincerity?

by Andy Warhol
Andy Warhol Foundation/Netflix © Andy Warhol Foundation

By emphasizing Warhol’s later years, and filtering every discussion of his work through the lens of his private preoccupations, Rossi avoids retreading too much familiar ground. The director cast a wide net in soliciting interviews, and evidently established a great deal of trust with many of the people who knew Warhol best. There are plenty of celebrity talking heads: Debbie Harry, John Waters, Rob Lowe. But the greatest insights come from experts like Jessica Beck, a curator at the Andy Warhol Museum, and to an even greater extent surviving members of the artist’s circle. One of Warhol’s closest friends, the photographer Christopher Makos, parses the diaries’ account of a dramatic night for which Makos was present: “Andy was a master at creativity, and I guess In his relationship with Jon he had to create tension and excitement.”

The Jon he’s referring to is Jon Gould, a Paramount executive who was one of Warhol’s great loves. Although often depicted as asexual or at least celibate—an impression he helped to manufacture—Warhol was a gay man who had infatuations, romances, even live-in boyfriends. For those who knew or study the artist, this isn’t new information. Yet in Rossi’s telling, sexuality is the key to understanding who he really was. Along with explicitly informing quite a bit of his work, including the homoerotic Sex Parts series and various explorations of gender, it helped shape his worldview as the slight, artistic son of Eastern European immigrants, growing up in a rough working-class part of Pittsburgh. And while he wasn’t exactly closeted, many interviewees note that his public silence about his identity, along with his avoidance of activism, particularly during the AIDS crisis, complicate any retrospective positioning of Warhol as a gay icon.

At the core of Diaries are three episodes that center Warhol’s relationships with three men who helped define his later years. Jed Johnson arrived in New York at 18 with his twin brother Jay, stumbled into the Factory with a delivery, was quickly hired to keep the place clean (he was very handsome) and ended up moving in with Warhol to care for the artist as he recovered from his near-fatal encounter with Valerie Solanas. The relationship lasted for more than a decade, as Johnson came into his own as an interior decorator. Not long after the men fell out, in 1980, over Warhol’s voyeuristic Sex Parts and Studio-54-era partying, Gould came into the picture.

A straight-passing WASP from a prominent Massachusetts family, he represented an all-American, “Mayflower elite” ideal for an artist who worshiped at the altar of Americana. One of the series’ most fascinating vignettes follows Warhol, Gould, and a few close friends on a Cape Cod vacation. Andy being Andy, there is grainy footage of just about every event that’s described in Diaries, but the home movies from this trip are particularly candid. If you ever wanted to see Warhol and friends follow up a homemade lobster dinner with a water-pistol fight, here’s your chance. “Everybody already was sort of leaving their public personas at the door when they would enter into one of the smaller things,” one attendee recalls. “Andy used to call me up after he’d gotten home at night and say, ‘Oh, it’s so good to take my Andy suit off.’”

The Andy Warhol Diaries. Andy Warhol in The Andy Warhol Diaries. Cr. Netflix © 2022
Andy Warhol in The Andy Warhol DiariesAndy Warhol Foundation/Netflix—© Andy Warhol Foundation

While opinions vary on the extent of Warhol and Gould’s physical relationship, there’s no doubt that it was a genuine, reciprocal romance. It may have been the artist who actively courted and pined for the man he placed on a pedestal, but Rossi also quotes extensively from poems Gould wrote to Warhol. More ambiguous is Warhol’s other abiding love of the ’80s: Jean-Michel Basquiat. As longtime Interview editor Bob Colacello puts it: “He was infatuated with Jean-Michel in both a paternal and a homosexual way.”

For Diaries, their friendship heralded an era of cross-pollination—for the art establishment and a generation of upstart street artists, for the ’60s avant-garde and the vanguard of the ’80s, and for a high-society set that was white by default and a multiracial subculture storming the complacent mainstream. But that synergy is complicated by competitiveness, questions around Basquiat’s sexuality, Warhol’s history of casual racism, homophobia within the graffiti community. Did their collaborative artworks come out of an authentic creative connection? Were they an example of an aging art icon exploiting a young rising star for relevance? Or was Basquiat the one taking advantage of his admirer Warhol’s fame and connections? The series suggests that there’s truth to each reading. “Anything is Rashomon,” says Hackett.

Rossi understands something that eludes so many biographers: that conflicting insights can be more revealing than consensus. Thanks to the diaries, we know plenty of facts about Warhol’s life after 1976: where he was and what he did on a daily basis, who he saw and whether he thought they looked old, and, in many cases, what was occupying his attention, existentially as well as in more superficial ways. What’s left is room for interpretation. It’s illuminating to listen as Warhol associates and experts wrestle with his politics, his sexuality, his Catholicism, his enthusiasm for technology, his insecurities about his appearance, the health anxiety that fueled his AIDS phobia, and how all of the above influenced his self-presentation. Watching Makos wrestle with contemporary criticism of his friend’s failure to publicly identify as gay, you begin to see why, beyond fear for his reputation or safety, Warhol clung to a more fluid sense of himself.

There’s nothing tawdry about all the emphasis placed on Warhol’s private life—and even his sex life, such as it was—which is, frankly, a nice surprise coming from the Murphy camp. Diaries is easily the producer’s best Netflix contribution to date. It isn’t flawless; too many visual holes are filled by blurry reenactments of mundane scenes at the artist’s townhouse, and later episodes sometimes fixate on his queerness to an extent that verges on essentializing. Yet the parallels Rossi draws between Warhol’s visual art, the performance art that was his public persona and the man he was among the people he cared for greatly enriched my understanding of his body of work. Was he celebrating consumerism or commenting on it? Was he obsessed with his own face or repulsed by it? Did he avoid AIDS or confront it in his art? The answer is usually both.

Thirty-five years after Warhol’s death, what strikes me is how thoroughly both his partisans and his detractors bought into his self-created illusion of opacity. Of course it was a smokescreen. No one lives a full life as a blank slate or a mirror. Knowing a public figure isn’t the same as solving a puzzle—it means seeing them in all the many contradictions that make a person human. Coming out of The Andy Warhol Diaries, I have trouble naming an artist we know better.

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