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Photo: ‘The Andy Warhol Diaries’
In Search of the Man Behind the Artistry
Andy Warhol has the curious position of being a household name in the American art world, whether it be for his “pop art” experiments in the 1960s or his various detours into music, film, TV, etc. — while at the same time remaining an enigmatic figure. To be clear, we have a thorough understanding as to the objective biographical details of Warhol’s life; this is not a case of Shakespeare, wherein an artist’s life is kept largely a mystery, simply for lack of obtainable information. Rather, Warhol was a public figure whose doings were often well-documented, but as a private individual, he seemed intentional to keep himself out of the spotlight. The one thing the average person can tell you about Warhol, outside of his work, is that he was gay — which is true, but there is a great deal more to the man than just his queerness.
Enter ‘The Andy Warhol Diaries’, a new Netflix limited docu-series, spanning six episodes, which covers most of Warhol’s adult life from the most personal perspective feasible: Warhol’s own writing. The series is based on a book of the same title, edited by Pat Hackett (who had worked with Warhol when he was alive), and the selected diary entries are narrated by an A.I. replication of Warhol’s voice. Now, I’m quite ambivalent about using an A.I. program to mimic a real person’s voice, in part because said person is most likely deceased; Warhol, however, was someone who tried to hide his emotions (both in public and even in private), even going on record as wanting to become like a machine, so the A.I. replication carries certain thematic appropriateness.
With help from the voice-over narration of Warhol’s diary entries, archival footage, and talking-head interviews with people who knew the man personally, we’re given a deep dive into the inner life of one of America’s defining 20th-century artists.
Beyond Andy Warhol’s 1960s “Peak”
The bulk of Andy Warhol’s reputation rests on the impact of his 1960s output, from roughly 1962 to the attempt on his life in 1968 — a near-death experience that would leave him permanently scarred, both physically and mentally. Warhol was a pioneering creator of “pop art”, a movement that emphasized the artistic qualities of mass-produced products, such as soup cans, comic books, movie posters, etc. Warhol was also, during this time, dabbling in experimental filmmaking, perhaps most infamously with ‘Empire’, an excruciatingly long recording of the Empire State Building — and nothing else. Personally, prior to watching this documentary, I was most familiar with Warhol through his involvement with the Velvet Underground, a New York-based rock band that nowadays is often held as one of the greatest bands of all time. Warhol was a painter, first and foremost, but he threw himself into nearly every other field on top of painting — a fascination with all mediums of art that only grew as he got older.
What’s interesting about ‘The Andy Warhol Diaries’, at least structurally, is how it basically skims over the era of Warhol’s career that he is most known for; we get two episodes focusing on Warhol’s career in the ‘60s and ‘70s, while the last four episodes cover roughly from 1980 to Warhol’s death in 1987. The result is a timeline that feels lopsided, but I reckon this was done on purpose, since Warhol had only started writing his diary deep into the 1970s, and he had begun collaborating with Pat Hackett in the mid-1980s.
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In the meantime, we’re granted interviews with quite a few people (usually involved in the art world) who knew Warhol, including a few familiar faces like Rob Lowe (actor), Debbie Harry (singer-songwriter), and John Waters (cult filmmaker and all-around Pretty Funny Gentleman). Warhol was known as a New York denizen, fitting right in with the city’s underground culture in the 1960s, and his sleazy connections give the impression of a hedonist; however, Warhol’s story is much more complicated (and much more tragic) than mere pleasure-seeking.
The Loves and Losses of a Lonely Artist
As mentioned earlier, one of the few things people tend to know about Andy Warhol is that he was gay; he was not exactly in the closet, but he didn’t make a point of his homosexuality during his lifetime, despite some instances of intensely homoerotic art done by him. Warhol had several boyfriends throughout his adult life, although they usually didn’t stick around; the documentary focuses on two in particular: Jed Johnson and Jon Gould. While not a romantic relationship necessarily, the documentary also spends a great deal of time on the possibly homoerotic friendship between Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat. Basquiat is arguably the greatest graffiti artist to have ever lived, a seismic talent gone far too soon (he had died from a drug overdose at 27, in 1988), and his relationship with Warhol in the 1980s seemed mostly to bring out the best in both of them.
I knew of Warhol, and I knew of Basquiat, but I did not know that the two were nigh-inseparable during the years of their friendship — to the point where they collaborated on several art projects together. Of the six episodes, I would say two are almost entirely dedicated to Warhol’s relationship with Basquiat, and can you blame the filmmakers? We have two of the greatest creative minds in America circa 1985, directly contemporaneous and working side-by-side; aside from William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway, or David Bowie and Ryuichi Sakamoto, I struggle to think of a more iconic artistic pairing. Of course, Warhol and Basquiat took solace in the fact that they were both queer men — in a society that was (and still largely is) dominated by straight people; Warhol, however, had the advantage of being white, whereas Basquiat had to contend with being a Black artist in America. Sadly, the two had a falling out, and never had the chance to reconcile; Warhol would be dead in ‘87, and Basquiat would die only a little over a year later.
There was another issue, though, that hung over Andy Warhol’s head — as well as the head of nearly everyone he knew in the last few years of his life. AIDS had started infiltrating American urban centers in 1981, and it went completely unacknowledged by the Reagan administration for four years, with millions at the mercy of a government that was more or less openly homophobic. AIDS can happen to anybody, but in the 1980s, it proved to be nothing short of apocalyptic among queer men in cities like New York and San Fransisco; the “Lost Generation” is a label applied to veterans of World War I, but it could just as easily be applied to queer men faced with the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s.
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Jon Gould, who had been Warhol’s partner for much of the ‘80s, died from complications related to AIDS, in 1986; he was 33 years old. Keith Haring, a fellow New York artist, gay rights activist, and an associate of Warhol’s, would also die from AIDS-related complications, in 1990; he was 31 years old. Warhol himself did not contract AIDS (he was deathly afraid of it), but he would die soon anyway — from botched gallbladder surgery, in February 1987; he was 58 years old.
The Man Who Became His Own Work of Art
Andy Warhol was like a lot of great artists, in that he was brimming with contradictions: his paintings and films were often provocative, even occasionally extreme, while the man himself was noted for his soft-spoken demeanor. He was a basically open homosexual, who was known (especially in the ‘60s) to be part of New York’s seedy underbelly — yet he was also deeply religious, having been a devout Catholic his whole life. He was unquestionably an outsider, yet he also grew so famous as to hang out with celebrities like Jack Nicholson and Farrah Fawcett; I mean, my God, he had a guest spot on ‘Saturday Night Live.’ Finally, Andy Warhol was a man who struggled with expressing emotions (he considered them to be too much trouble), and yet his finest works exhibit a profound emotional depth, dealing with queerness, death, religion, romance, commercialism, and a lot of other things.
You could recommend a certain piece by Andy Warhol, but the argument that ‘The Andy Warhol Diaries’ posits is that Andy Warhol’s greatest work might be himself; by the time of his death, he had become like a sun, around which planets would orbit. Behind all of Warhol’s provocations stood a man who wanted to know what love was about — and, for some sad reason, he could never crack the code. Still, Andy Warhol was a fabulous artist — someone who let his works speak for themselves, although with his diary, he would draw back the curtain (just enough) for future generations, so that we may catch a glimpse of one of 20th century America’s most enigmatic artists — but only a long, loving glimpse.
‘The Andy Warhol Diaries’ is currently streaming on Netflix.
By Brian Collins
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