What if the artist who spent most of his career seeking to “be a machine” never really nailed it?
That’s the central question of the aggravatingly flawed but incredibly moving Netflix docuseries The Andy Warhol Diaries, directed by Andrew Rossi. This expansive six-part series uses Warhol’s posthumously published diaries—or really his compulsive daily telephone ramblings to freelance writer and Diaries editor Pat Hackett—as a means to humanize Warhol beyond that stick-thin, silver-wigged, sunglasses-wearing persona who told the public: “If you want to know all about Andy Warhol, just look at the surface of my paintings and films and me, and there I am. There’s nothing behind it.”
Clearly, Warhol was fucking with us. His unfeeling I’ll Be Your Mirror image reflecting America’s obsession with consumerism, celebrity, superficiality, and twisted underbelly of death and disaster hid an inner depth. Warhol created this post-1960 Pop persona both as an adept marketing strategy—hello, branding!—and as a way to deflect attention from that pale and blotchy fey first-generation immigrant boy from Pittsburgh who would undoubtedly be the subject of an avalanche of criticism and potentially physical harm if he didn’t perfectly embody frigid impenetrability.
Perhaps the greatest of these vulnerabilities that the Warhol persona protected was his sexuality, often by portraying himself as asexual. Or at least humoring reporters that nebbishly asked about his sex life by coyly and breezily responding that sex is just “too much work.” Some of this may have had to do with the continued homophobia even in the freewheeling sexually fluid days of Studio 54-era NYC or Warhol’s own internalized self-loathing. Yet another explanation may be his desire to remain unknowable. As his diary entry from April 6, 1981 reads, describing his unexpected foray into the modeling industry with photographer Christopher Makos: “With the male models, all the really straight-looking models are gay, and all the really gay-looking models are straight. And Christopher and I decided that we should start telling people that despite how we look and talk, that we’re not gay. Because then they don’t know what to do with you.”
Now, I assume that as many people bought into Warhol’s asexual pose as believed Liberace’s adopted son was just that. Please. In some respects, much like John Waters, Warhol was always out. He didn’t have to say so. However, there is still a blind spot in accepting not only Warhol as a sexual being, but a romantic who desired and had intimate long-term relationships with men.
For those of us who are more than casual Warhol fanatics, we can point to moments where his self-constructed mask slips. Take, for instance, Warhol’s 1963 film John Washing, which features poet and artist John Giorno, nude, carefully washing dishes in a sun-soaked kitchen. Though seemingly as boring as many of Warhol’s early films like the similarly Giorno-fixated Sleep, John Washing is captivating in its slow-motion capturing of a quiet, almost wholesome, and thoroughly idyllic domesticity. In the camera’s—and by association Warhol’s—gaze, there’s unmistakable love. Blake Gopnik analyzes this film in his exhaustive 900-plus page biography, Warhol (which I’m currently wading through–only 600 pages to go!) in the context of Warhol’s perspective towards relationships. John Sleeping, he writes, “could have felt crass and kinky but instead gives a sense of an artist who is giddy with romance and pleasure. If there’s one thing that comes clear in Warhol’s life, it is that he was desperate for fine, old-fashioned love and coupledom. And that he suffered endless disappointment in his bids to find it.”
The Andy Warhol Diaries docuseries reveals that while Warhol may never have permanently discovered “fine, old fashioned love and coupledom,” he certainly experienced it in two notable long-term relationships. These relationships with sweet, soft-spoken courier turned Factory worker turned interior designer Jed Johnson and semi-closeted, all-American, straight-passing Paramount executive Jon Gould form the heart of The Andy Warhol Diaries, along with Warhol’s notably tender close friendship and creative partnership with Jean-Michel Basquiat. Granted, I’m sure some will brush off the importance of Warhol’s love life, sticking to that stiff art historical truism that an artist’s personal life should have no bearing on the interpretations of his work. Yet that old argument tends to only be made when it’s a personal detail that stuffy art historians would rather not confront. You know, like homosexuality.
Though preceded by books like Pop Out: Queer Warhol and the earlier The Autobiography and Sex Life of Andy Warhol, which, in different ways, attempt to peel back layers of Warhol’s ambiguous and detached persona, the docuseries shows how uncomfortable people are talking about Warhol’s sexuality. STILL. As the Andy Warhol Museum’s Curator Jessica Beck (who, full disclosure, I’ve interviewed and worked with previously and after watching this, am more than a little in awe of) says, “Warhol’s queerness is even hard to talk about to people who were close to him.” And it’s true. There are moments in the series in which you see some of Warhol’s friends and colleagues visibly recoil. For example, Interview Magazine editor Bob Colacello voices his horror at Warhol’s photographic collaboration with Christopher Makos in which he dons drag, mostly because that delightfully garish series may have lost the artist some portrait commissions. For what it’s worth, Colacello isn’t the only one. Makos too seems reticent to subscribe to some of the newer queer readings of Warhol’s late Last Supper paintings. Much of this continued response to Warhol’s sexuality is generational, inadvertently revealing how queerness has evolved from something relegated to being unspoken to loudly proclaimed and argued over on TikTok. The territoriality of certain Warhol veterans also unveils the lingering feelings of possession over Warhol’s legacy.
It’s not just the old Warhol crowd, though. Even younger viewers seem hesitant to delve into Warhol’s sexuality and relationships. A strange addition to the first episode is a random attendee of the Whitney Museum’s Warhol retrospective, Andy Warhol: From A to B and Back Again. Draped in a Warhol’s Marilyn-inspired dress with an enormous “Betsy” gold necklace and a face full of makeup, this uncredited platinum blonde gushes about her love of Warhol and then confidently announces: “A lot of people are like, ‘Andy Warhol had boyfriends.’…I know that he, you know, had boyfriends and stuff and I think you kinda just have to look past that, you know?”
Um…ok! Who the hell is this woman?! And why is she in this?
Warhol’s diaries go a long way, albeit quite subtly and occasionally in code, to refute all the willful denial of Warhol’s love life, even his own. As Jessica Beck observes, “There’s something about Warhol that he’s hiding so much, but within the Diaries, there are moments when the performance lapses and you see it over and over again—clues that he did have these intimate relationships and did fall in love.” Because of this, the docuseries takes that brick of a book, spanning 1976 to his death in 1987, as its backbone, read through an uncanny Warhol voiceover produced by AI, approved curiously by the notoriously strict Warhol Foundation. Was that approval warranted? It’s hard to say. I had trouble making it through the first two episodes without a chill running down my spine, particularly during moments where AI Andy’s inflection slipped into a distinctly robotic drone. But, hey, he did want to be a machine…
Recording day after day (after day) of Warhol’s life for around a decade, the docuseries did have to precisely pick and choose specific inclusions from The Andy Warhol Diaries. Anyone who seeks out the book after the docuseries is going to be in for a surprise. It’s not exactly a page-turner! In between juicy NYC society gossip and personal tidbits, Warhol mainly tallies every purchase he ever made: every cab ride, dinner, and Bloomingdale’s shopping spree. For tax purposes, of course! The Diaries docuseries mercifully avoids some of these more mundane aspects of the book, while highlighting the entries that contain the “clues,” as Beck keenly articulates, to not only Warhol’s love life but his own self-consciousness around his appearance and relationships. Through the Diaries, Warhol’s untouchable and perpetually marveling public performance is replaced by a man who seems riddled with insecurities, which goes a long way to show how this persona worked for him. Debbie Harry describes, “Andy was like really great actors. They don’t cry, or they don’t act vulnerable, but yet you feel that they are. And I definitely felt that from him.”
It also should be noted that while doing research for this piece, I noticed several occasions in which Andrew Rossi made selective and curious cuts in the reading of the entries. For instance, the docuseries cut this line entirely from an entry on Thursday, April 30, 1981, in which Warhol details running into Donald and Ivana Trump while with Jon Gould: “And it was so much fun to see Donald Trump again so soon in a different place.”
Did Rossi not want anyone to think Warhol would have been MAGA? Would Warhol have been CANCELED?
The revelations contained within The Andy Warhol Diaries are bolstered and enrichened by a mix of Warhol’s own films, home movies, television shows, and photographs, as well as a plethora of talking heads. These included Factory mates like Vincent Fremont, Bob Colacello, and Benjamin Liu, Warhol Museum staff like Beck and Director Patrick Moore, fellow artists such as Kenny Scharf, Glenn Ligon, and John Waters, society buddies like Jerry Hall, and gallerists such as Russian oligarch-buddy Larry Gagosian and our favorite scammer Mary Boone. Of these interviews, though, the most meaningful were the twin brothers of Jed Johnson and Jon Gould, both of whom are named Jay. As Colacello chuckles, “Andy did love repetition.” In addition to filling in the gaps about their late brothers’ lives, Jay Gould and Jay Johnson also, as opposed to using more creepy AI, read their brothers’ letters to Warhol with their, presumably, similar voices.
With such a wide-ranging mix of people, as well as footage and diary entries, The Andy Warhol Diaries is scattered, way too long, and could have used a good edit. The biggest problem that should have been left on the editing room floor—and where producer Ryan Murphy’s cheesy influence becomes glaringly apparent—is the excruciatingly schmaltzy and poorly done slo-mo reenactments that look as if they were filmed through cheesecloth. The docuseries could have been an hour shorter if they tossed all those long shots of a not-at-all-Warhol-resembling actor, putting on his wig, sitting at a table with a drink, and talking on the telephone, into the trash where they belonged, along with the cloying tinkling piano music that runs maddeningly through all six episodes. Rossi could have even replaced these criminally awful reenactments with more Warhol home movies. I didn’t even mind the extended videos that document Warhol’s 1981 trip to Cape Cod with Jon Gould, Christopher Makos, Peter Wise, and Vincent and Shelly Fremont. In fact, I could have watched even more of their dinnertime water pistol battle!
Though I have a high tolerance for voyeuristically peering into other people’s home movies (I do love Nelson Sullivan), the docuseries did really test the limits of my, and I assume others’, patience. For instance, I knew there was a problem with editing when Warhol dies in the final episode, and there were still over 40-minutes left! The rest of the sixth episode was mostly dedicated to conveying the exact gruesome details of how everyone involved in the series died. And look, I’m an avowed ghoul but the solemn text describing the puke next to Jean-Michel Basquiat’s corpse and the discussion of Jed Johnson’s remarkably preserved body after the TWA Flight 800 crash (note to self: always take first class if you don’t want to be incinerated!) was a bit gauche. Even for me!
Much of the length issue had to do with the expansive scope of the series. Some of this can be explained away by the centrality of the Diaries, but the docuseries, with its divergent storylines, comes off frequently as unfocused with random trips into Warhol’s guest appearance on The Love Boat, his (failed) portrait of Debbie Harry with the Amiga 1000 home computer by Commodore International, Diana Ross’s rained-out Central Park concert, and a deep dive into The Preppy Handbook. Even moments that did have purpose sometimes veered dangerously into woke Twitter hot takes, analyzing the past through the lens of 2022’s progressive politics. Take, for example, the fourth episode’s conversation about Warhol’s views on race, sparked by both the unfortunate deterioration of his friendship with Basquiat after an undoubtedly racist art critic referred to Basquiat as Warhol’s “mascot” in a review about their dynamic collaborative paintings and Warhol’s own insulting diary entries about Basquiat. In one scene, Rossi’s disembodied voice blares from off-screen to loudly proclaim to Whitney curator Donna De Salvo that some of Warhol’s diaries are “insensitive and racist.” Thus begins the debate: Was Warhol problematic about race? I mean…YES! Next scene! He was born in 1928 in Pittsburgh. Just ask the Yinzer neighbors who I fell in love with in the first episode who agreed that they, a Black woman in a football jersey and a white man in a rumpled button-down shirt, probably would not have been friends at the time Warhol was born in the Rust Belt city.
But, you can—and should—overlook these missteps. To fixate on the (numerous) bad decisions means missing Warhol and Basquiat’s endearing and a little competitive, almost comedic duo interaction, Jed Johnson patting their adorable dachshund Archie, and Jon Gould’s amorous poetry. Now, if lovey-dovey odes to Andy are just the right amount of saccharine, the docuseries does, at times, swing too far in order to tug on the viewers’ heartstrings and land in homonormativity land. This includes the jarring moment when Andrew Rossi asks Jay Johnson: “How difficult would it have been at that time to have essentially a marriage between two men?” This was the 1970s so pretty fucking tough! This question is paired with vintage footage of straight weddings. Odd. However, this did come with Jay Johnson’s insight that “there was something very…corny sometimes about Andy.” Don’t worry, though, there is enough disco sleaze to balance out the wedding bells, such as a diary entry describing a night out at The Cock Ring and The Anvil with Studio 54 owner Steve Rubell, which featured, “a boy taking off fifty pairs of jockey shorts.” Tell me more, Andy!
In addition to go-go boy fantasies, what makes the docuseries truly shine—and what makes it perhaps the best Warhol doc I’ve seen—are the fresh interpretations of Warhol’s often overlooked later series, as informed by his personal life in the Diaries. This ranges from the reference to Jon Gould’s job at Paramount with the inclusion of its logo in his collaborative paintings with Basquiat to the possible erection in the abstract Shadows to the Sex Part series that many pearl-clutchers would like to forget. Because the docuseries does such a riveting job laying out queer readings of his artwork, I was disappointed that The Warhol Diaries, for the most part, glossed over his early 1950s blotted ink drawings made during his stint as a commercial illustrator, which are some of his most overtly aesthetically “gay” in his career. I mean, the Fairies, the Studies for a Boy Book, the Truman Capote-inspired shoes? You can’t get more camp!
Regardless, the pinnacle of The Andy Warhol Diaries is the interpretation of Warhol’s final Last Supper series, as analyzed by Jessica Beck, in the context of not only the universal horror of the AIDS crisis ravaging New York but Warhol’s devastating personal loss of Jon Gould due to complications from AIDS. In the published Diaries, much of Gould’s illness is told through Pat Hackett’s minimal editor’s notes. For instance, on February 19, 1984, Hackett explains that Gould was hospitalized with pneumonia. According to his brother Jay in the docuseries, Warhol was at the hospital with Jon daily—a surprising dedication for a man known for his aversion to both hospitals and, well, caring. After recovering in New York, Gould moves to Los Angeles for a last-ditch New Age effort to maintain his health where he dies in 1986, bringing new meaning to Warhol’s phrase: “I don’t believe in death, because I think they’ve gone to California.”
This heartbreaking loss, coupled with Gould’s apparent, according to Hackett’s note, denial of his illness, brings Warhol’s final series of paintings to life. Commissioned by gallerist Alexander Iolas (who also dies from complications from AIDS), Warhol completed a series of paintings based on Da Vinci’s Last Supper, along with several smaller paintings emblazoned with feverish religious fervor phrases like “The Mark of the Beast,” “Heaven And Hell Are Just One Breath Away!”, and “Repent and Sin No More!” Warhol’s final descent into religion, like most of his later works, wasn’t exactly beloved like his iconic 60’s Pop era. Catholicism and religious symbolism weren’t particularly popular at the time, especially among queer artists, with figures like Cardinal O’Conner working hard to make the HIV/AIDS pandemic even worse by speaking out against the use of condoms. This is coupled with Warhol’s perceived failure at rising to the occasion to correctly perform activism. You weren’t going to find Warhol at an ACT-UP meeting or getting arrested at the Stop The Church action at St. Patrick’s Cathedral (though this occurred after his death).
Rather than describing O’Connor as a “fat cannibal from the house of walking swastikas” like David Wojnarowicz, Warhol was a practicing Catholic. Because of this, as Jessica Beck asserts, “Contributing to this movement to bring attention to AIDS was never going to be Warhol’s story.” Instead, Warhol’s response to the AIDS pandemic may be found within these final works as, Beck says, “a personal expression as a way to think about Christ as being this face of empathy or forgiveness of AIDS.” Central to this reading is Warhol’s monumental The Last Supper (The Big C), which depicts Christ at the Last Supper surrounded by newspaper headlines, Pop symbols such as the Wise Potato Chip eye, and motorcycles, recalling both hypermasculine leathermen and Warhol’s own earlier Pop Brando paintings. With AIDS appearing in a collage of New York Post headlines used as source material for The Last Supper (The Big C), which could also harken to the early reference to AIDS as the “gay cancer,” the painting, as well as the series as a whole, emerges as deeply personal and poignant: a gay Catholic man grappling with illness and shame, loss, faith, and forgiveness. This interpretation of the work opens up even further with the knowledge that Warhol was completely head-over-heels for Jon Gould. As Beck says of the painting, which could speak for Warhol’s work as a whole as seen in the docuseries: “And when you piece together this love story, all of these things explode on the canvas.”