By Audrey Ledford
Behind the wig-adorned theatrical persona of art legend Andy Warhol is a deeply relatable figure whose artistic impact can only be rivaled by the depth of his character. Andy Warhol (1928-1987), the creator of pop art, known for his famous portraits of Marilyn Monroe and Campbell Soup Cans, is possibly the most quizzical character from the 20th century art world. The new Netflix series, The Andy Warhol Diaries, breaks down Warhol’s life in his own words from his posthumous diary of the same name. The diary is supplemented with interviews from the people closest to Warhol and footage from the era. It is an in-depth look into the complicated life of the artist, cementing his place in pop-culture and our modern psyche.
The six-part docuseries, comprised of one hour episodes, takes its primary inspiration from the diary Warhol kept from 1976-1987. The series tells us Warhol was inspired to keep a diary after the assassination attempt on his life in 1968. After being medically dead for over a minute, Warhol emerged from the shooting inspired to closely document his life, making himself the focus of his art (once, he literally showcased himself in a glass box). The diaries were also a performance. Andy ‘wrote’ them by talking on the phone to his editor Pat Hackett, who would transcribe the calls, so his thoughts were self-monitored by the presence of her audience. Finally, Warhol always intended for the diary to be published, begging the question: what did he selectively choose for us to know about his life?
The interviews and real footage included in the docuseries bring us closer to the real Andy Warhol than ever before. Rather than relying on the unreliable narration of Warhol’s performative diaries, many close friends and associates of Warhol were interviewed for the project. This list includes his friends and business partners from the infamous Factory workshop, Interview Magazine, and relations of his former lovers. In an attempt to faithfully retell Warhol’s diaries, an artificial intelligence generated voice of Warhol’s was created (with the permission of the Andy Warhol Foundation). A semi-robotic voice of Andy Warhol reads his own diaries, in an eerie, but earnest way. After all, Warhol lamented many times how he wished to be a machine. The series masterfully separates the public persona of Andy Warhol from the real person better than the act of reading his diaries can.
The series explores Warhol’s relationships, focusing primarily on his ambiguous sexuality. Warhol, gay and possibly asexual, had tulmutuous relationships with two younger men that defined most of his later years. The series definitively argues Jed Johnson (1948-1996) as Warhol's first boyfriend. While not much is known about the relationship behind closed doors, interviews with Jed’s twin brother Jay Johnson and Warhol’s diary entries, make clear the mutual affection Warhol and Johnson shared. However, relationships with Andy Warhol were never simple. Warhol’s diary entries reveal deep insecurities about the relationship. Warhol had an obsession with beauty and youth, two things he hated that he lacked. This is reflected in his art at the time, his series titled “Sex Parts and Torsos” which is a series of Polaroids of young, handsome men having sex. Ultimately, his relationship with Jed Johnson would become toxic from insecurities and it ended in Johnson moving out. Warhol’s diaries demonstrate how distraught he was over the end of the relationship. He appears vulnerable and insecure, showing raw feelings uncommon to his public persona. The series wants to demonstrate that contrary to the popular belief of Andy Warhol as an aloof, robotic character, he struggled with real and deep emotions behind the scenes.
For the younger viewer, the series is an homage to the 70s and 80s, while managing to feel incredibly modern. The queer scene in New York City in the 70s and 80s – from Studio 54, to the baths, to AIDS – all play a prominent role in the series and how it affects Warhol’s art. The series reconstructs Warhol’s immersion in young gay party culture, without really partaking himself. Of course, there was dark cloud looming over the queer scene in the 80s: AIDS. Warhol’s second lover, John Gould (1953-1986) would die of AIDS in the fifth year of his relationship with Warhol. The influence of the AIDS epidemic was clear in Warhol’s diaries, as he was constantly worried about getting the “gay cancer,” but the impact of AIDS on his art is debated in the series. In his 1986 painting The Last Supper (The Big C), it is argued that the “Big C” stood for “gay cancer.” For someone like me who is too young to understand the pop-cultural moment of Andy Warhol, the series revives his image and his importance in the modern art world in the 70s and 80s. I left feeling connected to Warhol, to New York to the 70s and 80s, and the tragedy of the AIDS epidemic, despite being 40 years removed from the subject matter. This series is not only about Warhol, but also a period piece on this specific time and place in history.
The last impactful relationship in Warhol’s life that the series touches on is that of Jean-Michael Basquiat. Basquiat (1960-1988) was a revolutionary young artist coming on to the scene in the 80s as graffiti was starting to hold real value in modern art. Warhol and Basquiat struck up a relationship of artistic equals for a collaborative series. However, Basquiat and Warhol were treated as anything but equal. As a young Black artist, Basquiat faced intense racism from the art world and art critics. The series also does not shy away from Warhol’s own racially insensitive language used towards Basquiat in his diaries. The series additionally highlights Warhol’s treatment of people of color during his series titled Ladies and Gentlemen (1975), where he photographed trans women of color to create his famous portraits, making millions, while the models made only $50-100. One of those models was queer activist and Stonewall Riot legend Marsha P. Johnson. Warhol was not a trailblazer for simply being queer; his privilege as a rich, white male and his abuse of that privilege creates a more complete look at his character and relationship with Jean-Michael Basquiat. There is no question that Basquiat inspired and changed Warhol’s art; for one, Basquiat inspired Warhol to start hand painting again, and Warhol loved Basquiat. They were incredibly close until the racism of the art world turned their friendship sour after harsh reviews on their collaboration. The series is made better for its clear condemnation of the racism Basquiat experienced, and his revolutionary contribution to the art world.
This series attempts to answer the question: “Who was Andy Warhol?” For the most part, the question remains unanswerable, but maybe that was what Warhol wanted. He is an enigmatic figure shrouded in mystery, and I believe he liked it that way. While the series reveals parts of Warhol previously unknown and brings new meaning to his art, it is also clear that the diaries were never a total admission of self. For everything Warhol wrote down, there are a million details he didn’t include. This series is still worth the six-hour watch despite the unknowns. Warhol was undeniably one of the largest pop-cultural figures of his time and the founder of a new artistic movement. Deconstructing his life is astounding and fascinating; but also, the series reflects his humanity. Ultimately, it tells a story we all know: love, life, and loss.
Audrey Ledford is a sophomore in the SFS studying Culture and Politics and is the Creative Director of the Indy.