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It’s hard to think of anything more indisputably correct and fundamentally dull than the notion that Andy Warhol would have gotten a kick out of the celebrity culture of 2022.
Would the pop art progenitor have watched every episode of Keeping Up With the Kardashians and regularly joined Andy Cohen on Watch What Happens Live?
The Andy Warhol Diaries
Airdate: Wednesday, March 9 (Netflix)
Director: Andrew Rossi
Yes and probably yes, but way to latch onto the least interesting aspect of Andy Warhol as an artist and public figure.
There’s a bit of that tendency in Netflix’s new six-part The Andy Warhol Diaries, from documentarian Andrew Rossi (Page One) and executive producer Ryan Murphy, and that’s where some of it could surely have been trimmed. For the most part, though, The Andy Warhol Diaries is smarter and more sensitive than that. Warhol has been the focus of many documentaries and a key secondary figure in countless more, but I think this is the closest I’ve come to understanding the person behind the persona — and, in turn, maybe the most persuasive argument for Warhol as an artist with a personal connection to his art, which often isn’t the way he is presented.
As the title indicates, the Netflix series uses The Andy Warhol Diaries, the first-person chronicle dictated over the phone to Pat Hackett from 1976 until Warhol’s death in 1987, as its spine. The diaries started off as a way for Warhol to itemize travel expenses and they are, at times, very much an itemization of a fascinating life instead of anything truly introspective. As several people mention throughout the documentary, many of the facts and details have been called into question over the years — not as inaccuracies per se, but as Rashomon-esque variations, amounting to another Andy Warhol performance instead of a canonical treatment of events.
Rossi is careful to treat them accordingly. When it comes to the big events in Warhol’s life, the entries are generally skeletal or entirely evasive, and Rossi and the assortment of talking heads from Warhol’s life and then his 30+ years of artistic afterlife fill in blanks or explain absences. The entries are most interesting, honestly, as expressions of mundane insecurities and celebrations of tiny pleasures, like Warhol’s love of a wide and occasionally strange assortment of very mainstream movies. If you’ve ever wanted to “hear” Warhol talk about why he was moved by The NeverEnding Story, this is a documentary for you.
I say “hear” because Rossi uses an AI program to narrate much of the documentary in Warhol’s voice, a technique acknowledged in the first episode as a pretty clear piece of nose-thumbing at the kerfuffle around Anthony Bourdain’s “voice” in the documentary Roadrunner. The reality is that Warhol, ever a fan of robotics and mechanical reproduction, would have been amused by the technique. It never gives the illusion of hearing a real person, but offers a very Warhol-esque flat and ruminative counterpoint to the amusement, bemusement and passionate regard contributed by the interview subjects, who knew him, loved him or, in some cases, dedicated their lives to studying him.
There’s a general coldness to a lot of previous Warhol commentary, focusing on the distancing of his assistant-heavy silk-screen techniques, gawking at his late-career oddball ubiquity, looking at him as something of a eunuch at the ’70s and ’80s cultural and sexual orgy, a role that he played up himself. Rossi’s primary goal, then, is to recontextualize Warhol as somebody who had loves and lovers.
The middle of the series offers episode-by-episode glimpses into Warhol’s relationships with Jed Johnson, Jon Gould and Jean-Michel Basquiat. The first was a 12-year relationship following the events of Mary Harron’s 1996 film I Shot Andy Warhol, the second a multi-year relationship that had to be kept somewhat secret because of Gould’s job as an executive at Paramount. The third, which has been central to narrative films, documentaries and even a current play in London, was not necessarily a sexual relationship, but an emotionally rich pairing used here to reveal Warhol’s attitudes toward class and race; he was simultaneously progressive and conservative, since Warhol’s fourth key relationship presented here is with his Catholicism.
There’s always been a gap between acknowledgments of Warhol’s sexuality — the only debates are around what it meant to be “out” at that time, as well as Warhol’s press-baiting claims that he was asexual — and actual explorations of it, and Rossi does a great job of situating the real love, of different kinds, that Warhol had for Johnson, Gould and Basquiat as well as the ambiguity of how that love manifested. It’s more than just the coarse “Did Andy Warhol fuck?” question, though there’s a lot of graphic discussion of New York’s gay scene of the period and Warhol films and photo/painting series related to sex and drag queens and a world in which he could be perceived to have been a voyeur.
Using these core relationships lets Rossi play a much more active role as interrogator than in most of his documentaries: He can be heard challenging different talking heads on issues like bursts of racism in Warhol’s diaries as well as accusations that Warhol could or should have been more of an advocate during the rise of AIDS. Rossi’s decision to include his own voice makes sense since he’s almost a mediator between different factions, which include Warhol loyalists (Christopher Makos, Bob Colacello and other Interview Magazine regulars), Warhol pragmatists (admirers with doubts, usually from the art world), tangential celebrities (Rob Lowe, Jerry Hall, Mariel Hemingway) and actual personal friends and relatives and people with ties to Johnson and Gould (both of whom had twin brothers, a poignant and Warhol-appropriate quirk).
Tying things together on the artistic front are various Warhol Society and Warhol Foundation and gallery curators and directors, offering biographical details and occasionally steering Rossi through under-seen archival materials. Some viewers may think the art becomes an afterthought in The Andy Warhol Diaries. I’d disagree. Over the course of the six episodes, the majority of which run over an hour, Rossi conveys a lot of insight into the process and under-discussed meanings of an artist whose political side was always visible, but frequently shunted to the side by bananas, cans of soup and other Warholian ephemera.
Andy Warhol was, ultimately, a lot, and Rossi captures that thanks to the diary entries, the voluminous photos, home movies, news magazine profiles and clips from public access TV and MTV (plus some gauzy reenactments that are unnecessary, but not distracting). Sure, there could have been a more focused two-hour documentary just on the relationships and a more focused four-hour documentary just on the art and Warhol’s biography. In its current form, The Andy Warhol Diaries is maybe a little sloppy and maybe paints a little outside the lines. It’s a smart and suitable approach.
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