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Andy Warhol Tells All From the Grave

The enigmatic pop maestro finally gets real—or, an AI version of him does—in the new Netflix documentary series “The Andy Warhol Diaries”

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One day back in 2012, when I was the editor of Andy Warhol’s magazine Interview, someone from the mailroom appeared at my office door with a box. We were in the process of moving out of the Soho space Interview had occupied for the previous 23 years, and the box had been found in the basement. It was filled with papers, pictures, and other items that dated to the mid-1970s. There was an angry letter addressed to Interview’s editor at the time, Bob Colacello, who had apparently misdialed a midtown physician and hung up abruptly. There were mock-ups for what looked like a Smokey Bear PSA. There were grease-penciled contact sheets taped to the photographer Ara Gallant’s studio letterhead. There were images of Björn Borg, Paloma Picasso, Helmut Newton’s passport, and the model Verushka balancing on a chair in the middle of Fifth Avenue, near Central Park. There were sketches for an eerie tableau involving faceless silver mannequins and shopping carts filled with bottles of ketchup. There was a yellowed clipping from the Friday, February 6, 1976, edition of the New York Daily News with Patty Hearst on the cover alongside the headline “Patty Stars in Robbery Film.”

The box reminded me of one of Warhol’s “Time Capsules,” cardboard files and plastic containers he filled, beginning in 1974, with bits of detritus from his life. I recalled seeing the contents of several of them artfully arranged in vitrines at a Warhol show at Dia: Beacon in 2005, inviting viewers to draw connections between an array of pictures, letters, invitations, promotional swag, objects, and receipts. The difference was that this box in my office had not been sealed and stowed in secure storage for posterity. It had made its way through at least two of Warhol’s Factories to our basement, where it sat for a near-quarter century, evading the trash, water damage, and even a fire in the building in 2006. It had not been preserved; it had simply survived.

I mention all this because, when it comes to Andy Warhol, perhaps the most influential American artist of the postwar period, what is art and what is artifact can sometimes be dicey to discern.

It’s murky water that executive producer Ryan Murphy and director Andrew Rossi dive into in the new six-part Netflix documentary The Andy Warhol Diaries. Mining home movies, archival footage, and interviews with curators, gallerists, fellow artists, and people who knew Warhol, the series endeavors to provide an inside view of Warhol’s closely guarded personal life. The action is ostensibly narrated by Warhol himself, using excerpts from the 1989 opus The Andy Warhol Diaries, an 800-plus-page tome that was posthumously compiled and edited by his longtime friend and assistant Pat Hackett, who had collaborated with him on the 1980 book POPism: The Warhol Sixties.

From November 24, 1976, until just days before his death, at the age of 58 on February 22, 1987, after he was admitted to New York Hospital for gallbladder surgery, Warhol made a routine of calling Hackett each morning to dictate his diary. It was a project he began following an IRS audit in the early 1970s, after which Warhol’s business manager, Fred Hughes, instructed him to document all his activities and save his receipts so it was clear what was work and what was personal. Warhol’s solution was to try to make everything into work. Paige Powell, Interview’s publisher in the 1980s, once told me that Warhol would buy lunch for the staff at the Factory and then photograph everyone’s food before they ate, so it could qualify as a business expense.

Warhol’s diaries were another way for him to itemize his life. The entries can at times be almost excruciatingly mundane: “Got up at 7 a.m. in Vancouver and cabbed to the airport ($15 plus $5 tip, magazines, $5),” the first one begins. But they can also be extraordinarily revealing, as Warhol drops occasional bombs about art-world and Hollywood figures, his famous friends and contemporaries, and his anxieties about the kind of work he is doing, how others perceive him, and the way the world is changing. (The original printing of the diaries did not include an index, which sent much of New York’s chattering class nervously rifling through the text in search of their names.)

To bring the diaries to life, Murphy and Rossi used AI technology to recreate Warhol’s voice from snippets of archival audio and readings by the actor Bill Irwin. This “AI Warhol”—an invention that Warhol, who once employed actor Allen Midgette to impersonate him on a 1967 lecture tour, would surely have enjoyed—recites the lines from the diaries (as Hackett presented them) in a pixelated deadpan over a string of blurry visual reenactments. It’s Andy Warhol (sort of) in his own words (sort of).

I never met Andy Warhol. I was still in elementary school when he died. Like most of the world, my understanding of him has been formed largely by interviews, articles, books, movies, and exhibitions, as well as conversations I’ve had with people who worked with or who hung out with him. But even when Warhol was alive, he had the air of a self-invented figment whose unknowability became a material part of his art.

In the documentary’s first episode, Rossi quickly surveys Warhol’s early years growing up in Pittsburgh, his rise in the 1950s as a commercial artist doing illustrations for magazines and department stores in New York, and his emergence over the following decade as the fright-wigged Pop hipster-cipher, in a black leather jacket and sunglasses, of the Silver Factory, whose “Campbell’s Soup Cans,” “Brillo Boxes,” “Marilyn” series, and experimental films helped redefine American art and the avant-garde.

But this early Andy isn’t the Warhol of The Andy Warhol Diaries. The Andy that Rossi takes as his subject is the Warhol of the late 1970s and early ’80s, who comes across a bit like a countercultural mashup of Walt Disney and Mickey Mouse: the éminence grise of an underground kingdom of indeterminate magic. This late-period Warhol’s most-oft-cited artistic endeavors consist of doing commissioned portraits for a mixed bag of well-paying socialites and celebrities, hosting a show on MTV, and popping up in unexpected places, like The Love Boat. He has a contract with the Zoli modeling agency for runway and commercial gigs—a sideline that seems to be approached with a whiff of irony until it becomes apparent just how seriously Warhol takes it. He is in his 40s and 50s but often appears older, bearing both the physical and psychic scars of his 1968 shooting by Valerie Solanas, who played a bit role in one of his movies. The shooting almost killed Warhol—and briefly did: The bullet tore through his chest and abdomen and he had to be revived in the operating room. In the aftermath, he seems to be drifting through life like a wayward specter in search of unfinished business. 

How Warhol finds meaning in his last two decades—and how that meaning is connected to his art—are central questions in The Andy Warhol Diaries. The middle episodes are structured around three key relationships for Warhol during this time. The first is with Warhol’s partner throughout the 1970s, Jed Johnson, a delivery boy from Sacramento who Warhol hired to work in the Factory. After the shooting, Johnson moved into Warhol’s townhouse on East 66th Street to help him recover and they remained together for 12 years, as Johnson became a successful and sought-after interior designer. The second is with Warhol’s off-and-on boyfriend in the 1980s, a preppy young Paramount executive named Jon Gould. Gould initially appears as an object of Warhol’s infatuation but remains cagey about both their relationship and his sexuality. The third is with the painter Jean-Michel Basquiat, then a newly minted star in the art world. Warhol’s relationship with Basquiat wasn’t romantic but turned out to be pivotal for each of them, as Warhol struggled to stand up to the long shadow he’d already cast over post-war art and Basquiat grappled with the hype, addiction, and racism, both insidious and overt, that threatened to subsume him and his work. Johnson, Gould, and Basquiat all died young: Johnson at the age of 47, in the explosion of TWA Flight 800 over Long Island Sound, in 1996; Gould at 33, of AIDS, in 1986; and Basquiat at 27, of a drug overdose the year after Warhol’s death, in 1988. Johnson and Gould each had twin brothers named Jay, and both Jays speak in the series.

By all accounts, Warhol and Johnson’s bond was strong, only undone by what Johnson saw as Warhol’s desperation to feel young and relevant, which manifested itself in Warhol going out every night, taking strange combinations of drugs, and running away from the domestic life Johnson was trying to build for them together. The end came when Johnson discovered a set of nude photographs Warhol had taken of men that Victor Hugo—designer Halston’s window-dresser boyfriend and Warhol’s sometime assistant—had corralled as subjects for Warhol’s “Sex Parts” and “Torsos” series. Many in Warhol’s circle found Hugo toxic; Warhol referred to the pieces he was making as “landscapes.” Johnson had an affair and moved out—on Christmas Eve, no less.

Johnson’s departure deeply wounded Warhol. But within days Warhol had set his sights on Gould, a 27-year-old producer who worked under Paramount’s then-chairman Barry Diller. To win over Gould, Warhol showered him with gifts and flowers—grand gestures of affection that initially made Gould uneasy. Though Gould eventually responded to Warhol’s overtures, their relationship was always shaded by ambiguity, with Warhol reaching out to Gould and Gould periodically distancing himself from Warhol.

Warhol, Rossi’s subjects imply, was enamored with Basquiat. To many, their friendship also appeared transactional. But their connection—which is also explored in the new exhibition Jean-Michel Basquiat: King Pleasure, in Chelsea, and in a play, The Collaboration, which recently opened on London’s West End—seemed based on something more genuine. The work they produced for their 1985 collaborative show, Warhol, Basquiat, at the Shafrazi Gallery, with Warhol’s return to hand-painting and Basquiat painting over Warhol, represented a singular merging of two gargantuan artistic visions. But the New York Times review of the exhibition, which referred to Basquiat as an “art world mascot” and the project as one of Warhol’s more cynical “manipulations,” hurt Basquiat so profoundly that he, too, pulled away from Warhol.

The exploration of Warhol’s love life, in particular, is part of Rossi’s larger project: to lean into a relatively recent body of scholarship around Warhol as an LGBTQ+ artist. While it’s tempting to view the details about Warhol’s relationships with Johnson and Gould as revelations, Warhol never really hid them from the people in his sphere. His romantic partners—Johnson, Gould, the photographer Edward Wallowitch, and the poet John Giorno among them—often served as his subjects, and he dealt with queerness explicitly even in his early works, such as his 1950s “Boy Book” drawings. In interviews, Warhol could be notoriously obfuscating, but that was all part of his persona—a wry, asexual, apolitical, inscrutable one that he worked to cultivate, which somehow made the notion that he could ever truly love or be loved seem almost inconceivable.

This was likely intentional. Coming of age in Western Pennsylvania in the 1930s and ’40s, the child of Slovakian immigrants in a working-class Catholic family, Warhol’s identity—as clear as it might have been to him and as undeniable as it is said to have been to those around him—would not have been easily negotiable. At one point in The Andy Warhol Diaries, the gallerist Jeffrey Deitch discusses Warhol’s embrace of the “artist as art”—arguing that, in some ways, Warhol’s persona was his own greatest work. But adopting different personas might not have always been about art for Warhol. There were times when it may have been more about just finding a way to exist.

Warhol took those feelings of otherness and rendered them in primary colors. He started out as a commercial artist and, in many ways, he also ended up as one: His final series, “The Last Supper” paintings, completed just weeks before his death, was commissioned by the Greek art dealer Alexander Iolas, who thought the religious imagery would appeal to European collectors and financial institutions. Warhol understood that commercialism was all about packaging, so he went about repackaging everything—consumerism, Catholicism, celebrity, desire, tragedy, himself—as art. He did it almost compulsively, as if his life depended on it, because in some sense, it did. The alternative was an unbearable kind of isolation.

It’s a subject broached in the last two episodes of The Andy Warhol Diaries, which deal with Gould’s death and Warhol during the early height of the AIDS crisis. 

In the heady, bacchanalian days of the Silver Factory, Warhol was given the name “Drella”—an amalgam of Dracula and Cinderella—by the inhabitants of his studio. It was a nod at what some viewed as his apparent blankness or detachment in the face of the self-destructive tendencies he witnessed—and, in some ways, fed—in the people he transformed into Superstars and subsequently discarded in his own warped version of the Hollywood studio system. Questions about Warhol’s capacity for empathy are raised by Rossi in relation to “Ladies and Gentlemen,” a series of portraits of primarily Black and Latinx trans people that Warhol was commissioned by Italian art dealer Luciano Anselmino to create in 1975—among them, the activist and organizer Marsha P. Johnson. Four years later, the Village Voice found Johnson wandering Christopher Street, broke and alone, while Warhol’s portrait of her sold for tens of thousands of dollars. (The sitters for the “Ladies and Gentlemen” series were each paid $50 for their time; most of them were not identified until 2014.) In his diaries, Warhol even says troubling things about Basquiat—some of his quips laced with the kind of racism he knew Basquiat was fighting to overcome–and Rossi delves into some of the experiences in Warhol’s childhood that might have informed those comments.

Warhol didn’t deal explicitly with issues like race, privilege, or exploitation in his work; it’s unclear if he had the ability or self-awareness to deal with those issues in his life or if what some have interpreted as a kind of observational distance or a callous indifference was a burden or a void. But the negative space isn’t entirely empty.

In a 1985 diary entry following a trip with Gould to Cape Cod, Warhol laments the state of their relationship: “I thought this trip would bring some progress with Jon, but it didn’t,” Warhol says. “Oh, but from now on I can’t talk personally about Jon to the Diary because when I told him I did, he got mad and told me not to ever do it again, that if I ever put anything personal about him in the Diary he’d stop seeing me. So from now on, it’ll just be the business angle in the Diary—he’ll just be a person who works for Paramount Pictures who I’m trying to do scripts and movies with.”

It’s difficult to know if Warhol’s words were meant to be included in his diaries or if they were directed at Hackett, whose job it was to transcribe them (or both). We’ll never know, which is part of what makes using the diaries as a primary source so fraught. 

Warhol mentions Gould again in the diaries, but he never addresses Gould’s death. We find out about it in an editor’s note from Hackett, who says that Gould died after “an extended illness,” and denied even to close friends that he had AIDS. 

In this era of reckoning, it’s hard to imagine a moment when silence didn’t just equal death, but death could be accompanied by silence. This is where our understanding of Warhol’s context matters—of the fear and stigmatization that existed in the 1980s, of what it was like to live inside strained euphemisms. The New York Times didn’t even identify AIDS as a cause of death in obituaries until May 29, 1987, when actor, playwright, and theater director Charles Ludlam succumbed to the disease. Flipping through issues of Interview from back then, the impact of the AIDS crisis can be felt more by an absence. There isn’t an avalanche of tributes or rallying cries. The magazine just suddenly sobers up as editors, writers, photographers, actors, models, artists, musicians, and dancers quietly slip away from the world and its pages. 

Warhol didn’t often talk about AIDS publicly, but it’s all over his diaries. He hears rumors that a designer friend has AIDS and panics after the designer kisses him on the cheek at a party. Rock Hudson and Perry Ellis both die of AIDS and Warhol laments how the disease is ravaging the creative community that surrounds him. He is sad—and scared. In another one of Hackett’s editor’s notes, she recalls instructions he gave to his housekeepers: “From now on, wash Jon’s dishes and clothes separate from mine.”

Toward the end of the series, Rossi addresses the long-held perception that Warhol’s response to the AIDS crisis was somehow a failure—that he should have been a more vocal advocate for the LGBTQ+ community at a time when people in his life, like Gould and Interview editor Robert Hayes, were dying.

In one sequence, Jessica Beck, a curator at the Andy Warhol Museum who has written extensively about Warhol as a queer artist in the age of AIDS, decodes one of Warhol’s last paintings, entitled The Big C, which was part of “The Last Supper” series. Among other imagery, it contains pictures of motorcycles and other queer signifiers, Christ figures, the omniscient eye of the Wise potato-chip insignia, the mark of the beast reformatted as a “6.99” price tag, and references to newspaper headlines about AIDS, which was referred to in the media early on as “gay cancer.” That’s the “The Big C,” Beck posits: Gould’s death, Warhol’s spirituality and sexuality, his fears and shames and obsession with mortality, are all right there on the canvas. 

It’s a poignant reframing of Warhol’s art through a personal lens that, whether you agree with Beck’s biographical reading or not, casts a glow on his work’s startling intimacy.

It’s powerful, too, to see both Jay Johnson and Jay Gould discuss their brothers Jed and Jon, looking how Jed and Jon might have looked now. Jay Johnson says he wishes Jed and Warhol had somehow found a way to stay together; we see Jed at Warhol’s funeral and Jay commemorating Jed’s death on a Long Island beach. Although Warhol never discusses it in his diaries, we learn separately that when Gould was first admitted to the hospital, Warhol—who abhorred hospitals—visited him every day for his entire month-long stay. At an auction in 2017 of the estate of Jon and Jay Gould’s mother, we see a trove of poems and letters Warhol wrote to Jon in response to ones that Jon had written to him. Warhol’s love was not unrequited.

In the final episode, the artist Glenn Ligon offers that the making of an artwork is often less about expressing who you are than trying to figure out who you are. For Warhol biographers and curators, there’s an almost reflexive inclination to try to imagine how he would have embraced this age we’re in now, when our notions of identity, celebrity, and reality are so thoroughly Warholian. Rossi does not resist the low-hanging fruit: The prospect that an algorithm could allow someone who has been dead for 35 years to keep talking probably would have intrigued Warhol—as would Instagram, TikTok, the metaverse, vibe shifts, Kim Kardashian, Fox News, and the modern mechanics of propaganda. But more than art, more than media, more than memes, it’s the roiling nature of our psyches that Warhol may have been most prescient about.   ❖

Stephen Mooallem is editor at large at Harper’s Bazaar and the former editor in chief of Interview and the Village Voice.

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