Ryan Murphy presents an unexpectedly poignant look at Andy Warhol behind the scenes.
There shouldn’t be anything more to say about the New York City art scene circa 1965 to 1985. True, it’s an exciting subject, depicting an era that was a unique combination of glamorous and trashy, inclusive and deeply snobby, and something we’ll never see again. Nevertheless, it’s been exhausted, a tragic, oft-told tale of excess decimated by drug use and AIDS. And we certainly seem to know all we could ever know about Andy Warhol, the father of that scene, who made superficiality and detachment seem fashionable. The Andy Warhol Diaries, however, is a rare, moving look at the person behind the carefully cultivated persona, who craved traditional domesticity while being drawn to the frenetic downtown party circuit at the same time.
Warhol’s diaries, dictated via daily phone calls to his friend Pat Hackett, were originally published in 1989, two years after Warhol’s death from complications of gallbladder surgery. At first glance, they seemed to be a collection of rote recountings of interminable dinner parties, dishy encounters with other celebrities, whatever Warhol perceived to be trendy at that particular time, and how much he spent on cab fare and magazines. The six episode series, executive produced by Ryan Murphy, focuses on some of the more personal issues Warhol touched upon, including his romantic relationships, his fear of AIDS and its impact on the community, and how he felt about his art, filling it all in with help from colleagues and friends, including Bob Colacella, Julian Schnabel, and Hackett herself.
While hundreds of hours worth of recordings of Warhol’s voice exist, here the narration is AI generated, using those recordings tweaked with some help from actor Bill Irwin. As with last year’s Anthony Bourdain documentary Roadrunner, the effect is eerie, not just because of how “like” it is, but because of what this kind of technology could (and probably will) eventually lead to. Here, however, Warhol’s curiously flat, affectless voice, computer generated or otherwise, belies the emotional things he notes in his diaries, giving the whole thing a strange, surreal feel Warhol himself would have almost certainly loved.
Much of what’s covered about Warhol’s professional life won’t be new to his fans (or detractors). What he might have lacked in raw artistic talent, he more than compensated for with a skill for self-promotion that, even today with the help of social media, few other artists can match. Shy and inarticulate, Warhol, hiding behind an odd, ghostly-white complexion and platinum fright wig, “presented himself as an event rather than a person,” and forced people to look at his paintings of soup cans and black and white films of beautiful young men receiving blowjobs as “art.” He also had an eye for exciting new talent, “discovering” the Velvet Underground and raising such people as Candy Darling and Edie Sedgwick to their status as eternal icons of glamor and lost youth. A true eccentric, Warhol wasn’t just a cool kid, he was the cool kid. But you probably knew most of that already.
The Andy Warhol Diaries also spends a fair amount of time on the frenetic, bacchanalian parties Warhol attended (and exhaustively took photos of), which look both exciting and absolutely intolerable (no wonder everyone was on drugs). If none of that particularly moves you, then at least watch the unexpectedly poignant episodes devoted to the loves of Warhol’s life, the sweet, mild-mannered (and ethereally handsome) Jed Johnson, the vivacious Jon Gould, and legendary artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, all of whom died tragically young. While Warhol publicly presented himself as asexual, and had deeply complicated feelings about his sexuality that he rarely addressed, he maintained as traditional relationships as he could manage with Johnson and Gould. The excerpts of love letters from Warhol to Gould, in which Warhol proclaims that he “can’t live without” him, have a surprising passion and intimacy that seems out of character for what we know about Warhol, which is further proof that his ability to create an impenetrable, droll persona remains unmatched even today.
[It’s] a rare, moving look at the person behind the carefully cultivated persona, who craved traditional domesticity while being drawn to the frenetic downtown party circuit at the same time.
Warhol’s relationship with Basquiat was rather a bit more complicated. While never officially a couple, it was clear that the two were infatuated with each other, with Warhol drawn to Basquiat’s youth and vitality, and Basquiat looking up to Warhol as both a friend and mentor. Their strange, co-dependent friendship (Warhol would even occasionally tag along on Basquiat’s dates with women) was both helped and hindered by how much they had in common, both of them treated as curiosities at best by the fine art world, harshly rejected by critics, and feigning an indifferent attitude towards both their art, and how it was perceived.
While the episodes on Warhol’s romantic relationships are when The Andy Warhol Diaries is at its most engaging, don’t overlook the episode focusing on Warhol’s feelings about the growing AIDS crisis. It provides an interesting perspective from someone watching the world fall apart around him, while still trying to maintain the dry distance of a quiet observer, remarking at one point that gay men “would have to get married, like a green card.” Warhol, reluctant to be perceived as a gay icon, was even more averse to getting involved in activism, even after his ex-partner Gould died of the illness in 1986. He seemed all too aware and remorseful of his lack of action, however, and it’s likely he would have come around on the subject, as it decimated his friends, colleagues, and the younger artists who emulated him.
A good exercise in reading between the lines, The Andy Warhol Diaries presents a professional weirdo as a lonely, deeply anxious human being, who wanted badly to give his lovers what they wanted but always held back until it was too late. Warhol had a love-hate relationship with being the “right kind of gay” who was allowed passage into high society and treated as a sort of exotic pet, and with the gay bathhouse scene, of which he was both drawn to and repelled by (he was, before everything else, a good Catholic boy). I am hardly the first to say that he would have loved both reality television, and social media, particularly Instagram and Twitter, which allow users to present their lives in heavily curated, bite-sized pieces. For all the criticism Andy Warhol received for hiding behind an artificial image, now it’s all but a way of life online. Yet, we still ignore what a speaker at Warhol’s funeral warned: “Never take the artist at face value.”
The Andy Warhol Diaries is now available on Netflix.