The Andy Warhol Diaries Review: An Elusive Icon Comes into Focus

Netflix's The Andy Warhol Diaries finds a clear center on the most peripherally visual artist of the 20th Century.

Andy Warhol
Photo: Netflix

Face value has never had a more accurate appraisal than the accumulated works of Andy Warhol. Early in The Andy Warhol Diaries, the artist at the center shows his colors. “If you didn’t have fantasies, you wouldn’t have problems,” Warhol says. The mask he wore never covered the mascara he always felt he needed. Warhol didn’t like his skin, the shape of his nose, his receding hairline, or his asexual façade. He says he’d always wanted to be a robot, unemotional, detached, and ageless. The six-part documentary gives him that, but infuses the machine with affection.

The main narrator of The Andy Warhol Diaries is Andy, but not. Along with layered readings by Bill Irwin, Andy’s words are translated by a Warhol-bot, an artificially intelligent vocal algorithm machine which inadvertently highlights how much the art celebrity would have enjoyed the current age of everyday stardom. Warhol was the man who said everyone will have their fifteen minutes of fame, and technology and reality TV conspired to make that commonplace. For better or worse, he could take pride in the worlds he helped usher into consciousness. Even his robot AI voice has emotional growth, and allows fluctuating undertones to seep into the silk screen. The re-enactments feature a Warhol double filmed from behind, which suits the AI-Warhol recitations, but mocks the extensive film stock Warhol shot during some of the most amazingly productive eras in his career. There is enough Andy Warhol on film for dozens of documentations, but a copy is on the screen. It is as dissonant as it is representational.

Warhol was a larger-than-life but intensely private, and the series is largely revealing, subversive and opaque. Directed by Andrew Rossi (Page One: Inside the New York Times, The First Monday in May), the film brings a new perspective to Warhol’s self-presentation. The Netflix docuseries is based on Warhol’s own diaries, which were posthumously published in 1989. The 840-page book was co-written with Pat Hackett. It began as a business ritual of morning calls and day planning, and grew into descriptions of the events of the previous day. What starts out as expense records morphs into gossip, confessions, boasts, and regrets. Rossi presents Warhol as the outsider even as the ultimate insider through wild nights at Studio 54 with Debbie Harry or days at the Vatican with the Pope.

“I’m just a freak,” Warhol’s voice narrates. “I wasn’t very close to anyone. Although, I guess I wanted to be.” Rossi finds the secrets which reveal what has always been painted over the surface. He gets a wide range of stories from the interviews, which include Rob Lowe, Fred “Fab Five Freddy” Brathwaite, Vincent Fremont, Jeffrey Deitch, Glenn Ligon, and Lucy Sante, and presents them at a very measured pace. Not quite as leisurely as Warhol’s own films, which delved deep into real-time, but do not get nearly enough frame-space.

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The series begins with Andy’s childhood in Pittsburgh, but because Warhol and Hackett didn’t start the process until 1976, much of his early work in New York is brushed over. We get bowlfuls of the soup can illustrations, and Jessica Beck, a curator at the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, expertly abstracts the movements from commercial artist to Pop Art innovator. The Factory years, however, are rushed through to get to their life-changing disruption, when Valerie Solanas, author of the S.C.U.M. Manifesto, shoots Warhol in 1968. The sequence itself is harrowing, especially hearing the fear in the voice of one all-too-close eye witness also threatened at gunpoint.

The diaries are forthright in ways Andy never articulated in public, expanding on his relationships with gender, sexuality, beauty, and identity. Throughout the many public inquiries, Warhol told journalists he was asexual. The documentary presents a full arc to the love story between Andy and Jed Johnson, who was hired by Factory director Paul Morrissey because he was too good-looking to be delivering packages. The memories from Jed’s twin brother Jay Johnson are touching, but his analysis of the relationship itself is tacitly moving.

Jed nursed Andy after the shooting, remained faithful to the artists’ business, and built his own interior design works into a cause célèbre. He even directed the last of the Factory films, the much-maligned and ghastly underseen Andy Warhol’s Bad. A personal favorite sequence in the documentary is hearing John Waters explain why that was more like his films than Warhol’s production portfolio.

Rossi excels in reinforcing the very things Andy’s art undermined. He finds subtle commentary while analyzing Warhol the business artist, painting commissioned portraits of the most fabulously successful, while being seen at the most conspicuous events. It is a fun ride to go along on, probably the era the audience is most familiar with, but the artist still seems to wake up alone. Home movies show the very public face in very private moments, allowing grins, but showing smile lines, during Andy’s relationship with Paramount Pictures executive Jon Gould. He also had a twin brother, something which fascinated Warhol as very Pop art. Gould passed as straight. This is enigmatic to Warhol and the people around him, and Rossi uses this to allow contemporary comparisons to sink in.

The documentary shows how the tension between the asexual aura Warhol cultivates and the open freedom of 1970s gay scene made for internal confusion which became daring art. Some of Warhol’s most controversial showings coincide with his most mainstream successes. His celebrity profile thrives against his most exquisitely stark, lurid, and pornographic exhibits. While a collaboration with one flamboyant model seems designed to derail the commercialism and alienate the art community, Rossi always finds a safe landing in ever-progressive inclusion. But not without conditions. Former Interview magazine editor Bob Colacello, who wrote the 1990 Warhol tell-all Holy Terror, explains Warhol’s collaboration with Jean-Michel Basquiat in the 1980s was “paternal and homosexual,” complicated and brilliant. But Warhol could be artistically cruel to Basquiat in diary entries.

Warhol’s fear of HIV/AIDS is well-documented in the published diaries. The documentary presents it both through the lens of New York’s gay community, and in the context of Warhol’s personal anguish and artistic output. The AIDS epidemic and Warhol’s fear of hospitals intersect several times during the course of the series. It shades and foreshadows the two most dramatic of events. The stabbing, which turned Warhol inward, and the fatal heart attack Warhol suffered, at age 58, after delaying gall-bladder surgery. It also pervades his later life rediscovery of religious art, even as it is foreshadowed from the entries’ earliest recollections.

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Two-dimensional, stained glass, Catholic iconography informed Warhol’s most iconic works, and the documentary shows how it remained relevant whenever the personal threatened the artistic. Speaking at the memorial for Warhol at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York, John Richardson said his spiritual side was “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 glamor. And that he was cool to the point of callousness. Never take Andy at his face value.”

The Andy Warhol Diaries brings the pop art icon into focus as a visionary observer, capturing the surface sheen and underground sweat of the 20th century in his works, and 15 minutes of the mythology of today.

The Andy Warhol Diaries premieres on Netflix on March 9.


4 out of 5