“Oh, I don’t know. Life is interesting, I guess.” So intones Andy Warhol, in his famously opaque way of saying everything and nothing at once, many hours into The Andy Warhol Diaries, a new six-part documentary series premiering on Netflix on March 9. Directed by Andrew Rossi (known for acclaimed documentaries like Page One: Inside the New York Times and The First Monday in May) and produced by Ryan Murphy (the manic mind behind Glee, Nip/Tuck, Halston, and American Crime Story series on Gianni Versace and O.J. Simpson, among many other spirited and tawdry small-screen affairs), The Andy Warhol Diaries takes inspiration from the doorstop of a memoir published two years after the Pop art star’s death.
Readers of the 840-page book, which consists of daily memories dictated over the phone and edited down by Warhol confidante Pat Hackett before publication in 1989, come across all kinds of information. Some of it is numbingly banal (recitations of petty gossip, records of dollar-amounts spent on taxi rides), while some of it is impossibly glamorous (nights out at Studio 54 with Bianca Jagger, meeting the Pope at the Vatican). Part of the thrill of reading the Diaries, for those who find it a thrill at all, lies in learning how to reconcile one kind of discovery with another kind that might be its opposite, in a way that makes the plain parts interesting and the interesting parts plain. For those who fall under Warhol’s sway, the process can be perspective-changing in the way that it is exciting and inspiring to watch one of Warhol’s long and plodding—or even entirely static—films. As Warhol himself wrote in his book Popism: The Warhol Sixties (1980), “That had always fascinated me, the way people could sit by a window or on a porch all day and look out and never be bored, but then if they went to a movie or a play, they suddenly objected to being bored. I always felt that a very slow film could be just as interesting as a porch-sit if you thought about it the same way.”
That ascetic approach presents a challenge to a documentary treatment of The Andy Warhol Diaries that seems insurmountable early on, when the mundanity of so much of what is featured runs in opposition to the need for it to be, somehow, dramatized. As has become common for documentaries on TV, re-enactments are frequent, with a would-be Warhol stand-in shown from behind or otherwise in obscured views shuffling around at home and going about his day. The effect is jarring at first, but it becomes innocuous enough as the rhythm of such scenes fits into the first episode’s slow and patient pacing (which grows even slower and more patient in the five episodes that follow, each around an hour long).
More eyebrow-raising is the presence of narration by a simulation of Warhol’s voice made by way of artificial intelligence. Drawing on text-to-speech technology layered with recorded readings by an actor (Bill Irwin), the digital simulacrum of a voice effectively recites the diary entries as Warhol originally transmitted them over the phone. It would seem to be a terrible idea, and moments are rare when awareness of the post-human process is not top-of-mind. But it turns out, against all odds, that the novelty of it not only works but, in fact, becomes surprisingly moving as the series progresses. It may well be that employing “deepfake” voice simulation is bad in every way in every other instance, but Warhol—a stoic cipher who tried to speak as little as he could and, when forced to, made a game of evasion—proves to be a special case, especially as much of the subject matter of the Diaries is highly emotional in ways that the artist himself never was in a clearly articulated way.
The emotional highs and lows of the Diaries are the main focus of the series, which has been advertised with the tag line “The art you know. The artist you don’t.” And not just emotional highs and lows in general but particular manifestations of each pertaining to Warhol’s love life and his relationship with different aspects of gender and sexuality.
The first episode makes quick work of Warhol’s rise, from his upbringing as a child of Slovakian immigrants in Pittsburgh to his ascent to stardom in New York, before settling into the years when the text of the Diaries begins, in 1976. The rush of the formative Factory years comes to a decisive breaking point after Warhol is shot and nearly killed by S.C.U.M. Manifesto author Valerie Solanas in 1968, after which point the glam-minded artist turned more guarded and private—and also fell in love with Jed Johnson, an interior designer who moved in with him to help him convalesce.
The air of domesticity that Johnson and Warhol cultivated together in Warhol’s townhouse on the Upper East Side is a focus of the first two episodes, which move back and forth between Warhol’s evolution as a “business artist” painting pricey portraits on commission and his much more secretive private life. Johnson’s twin brother Jay Johnson speaks openly and movingly about the relationship that his brother (who died in 1996, in a commercial plane crash) tried to nurture before Warhol started to squirm. At one point in episode two, Warhol speaks (via the simulated voice) of blushing when Jed Johnson’s parents paid a visit and thanked him for being so nice to their son. But as they spent more time together, Warhol began to devote himself to nightlife debauchery at destinations such as Studio 54, seemingly as a way to be away from home. By the end of the episode, their relationship has fizzled, with more than enough sadness to go around.
Enter Jon Gould, an executive at Paramount Pictures to whom Warhol started sending flowers in an exerted effort at courtship that surprised everyone around him. Bob Colacello, one of the artist’s closest associates at the time and author of the 1990 Warhol tell-all Holy Terror, notes that, like Johnson, Gould also had a twin brother—perfect for Warhol’s “fascination with twins, which is very Pop art. Repetition. Andy loved repetition.” That Gould could pass as straight and often did is of great interest to Rossi, the director, who devotes the bulk of episodes three and four to Warhol and Gould. Through differing degrees of closeness and distance, the two of them seemed to navigate happy times—such as a group trip with friends to Cape Cod captured with amazingly intimate personal video—while remaining a mystery to those around them. At one point, Colacello says, “I remember Steve Rubell, who Andy sort of confided in … Steve once said to me, ‘Jon Gould just dances naked for Andy, and that’s their idea of sex and whatever.’ … I love that Tallulah Bankhead comment when she learned that Montgomery Clift was gay, and she said, ‘How would I know? He never sucked my cock.'”
Tension between the asexual aura that Warhol projected and the queerness he was so clearly enamored with remains a focal point of the series as it ventures into other subjects, such as Warhol’s collaboration on a series of paintings in the 1980s with Jean-Michel Basquiat. At one point, dealer Larry Gagosian says, “I’m not a big fan of collaborations. Commercially I think they’re problematic. A lot of time, like oil on water, it just doesn’t make sense. But that really clicked.”
Colacello says Warhol “was fascinated with Jean-Michel, in both a paternal and homosexual way.” While their work together brought both artists helpful bursts of attention (Warhol’s fame was flagging at the time), their relationship was complicated. In one of his many appearances throughout the series, the artist Glenn Ligon says, “I think it is possible to hold two opposing views at the same time. There’s a lot of affection there, even though in the Diaries and other places he says horrible things about Basquiat.” (The show then cuts to a Diaries entry that reads: “I think he’s going to be the Big Black Painter. I think Jean Michel’s early stuff is better … how many screaming Negroes can you do?”)
While it comes up as a subject in several instances starting early in the series, the specter of HIV/AIDS and the ways it devastated queer communities in New York becomes a dominating presence in the later episodes. A lot of time is devoted to a storied Diana Ross concert in Central Park in 1983 that was beset by a Biblical downpour of rain, with ominous symbolism lost on no one involved. Gould was a producer of the concert, and the way it’s represented in the series makes it seem like one of those moments that, as Don DeLillo wrote of the assassination of JFK, “broke the back of the American century.”
Warhol’s fear of AIDS features prominently in the Diaries in the ’80s, with many entries similar to one about Calvin Klein: “And then Calvin came in, and he kissed me so hard and his beard was stubbly, and I was so afraid that it was piercing into my pimple and being like a needle giving me AIDS. So if I’m gone in three years…”
The Netflix series is very powerful on the subject of AIDS, and it sets the epidemic well into the context of Warhol’s interest in religious art late in his life. It also figures until the very end, as Warhol’s fear of hospitals and all that they represent haunted his experience of the gall-bladder surgery that ultimately killed him at the age of 58. (After putting off the surgery for years, Warhol went through with the procedure but suffered a heart attack in recovery.)
The series is also very powerful for what it reveals about an artist who occasioned so many different kinds of revelation around him. Rossi seems to have earned the trust of the confidants and observers he interviewed, soliciting considered and contemplative ruminations from the likes of Bob Colacello, Christopher Makos, Vincent Fremont, Jeffrey Deitch, Glenn Ligon, Lucy Sante, John Waters, Rob Lowe, Fred “Fab Five Freddy” Brathwaite, Greg Tate, Benjamin Liu, and Jessica Beck, a curator at the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh who shares perceptive readings of artworks and finds from the artist’s archive. Rossi also seems to have dived deeply into an enigmatic text that holds secrets far more revealing than what shines most brightly on the surface.
In moving footage from a memorial for Warhol at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York, John Richardson, the distinguished art historian, says, “Although Andy was perceived, with some justice, as a passive observer, I’d like to recall a side of him that he hid from all but his closest friends: his spiritual side. Those of you may be surprised that such a side existed. But exist it did, and it’s the key to the artist’s psyche. The knowledge of this secret piety inevitably changes our perception of an artist who fooled the world into believing that his only obsessions were money, fame, and glamour. And that he was cool to the point of callousness.”
Speaking in a way for the thoughtful and sensitive Netflix series as a whole, Richardson continues, “Never take Andy at his face value. The callous observer was in fact a recording angel, and Andy’s detachment, the distance he established between himself and the world, was, above all, a matter of innocence and a matter of art.”