Review: ‘The Andy Warhol Diaries’ is about love, not art
“The Andy Warhol Diaries,” a six-part documentary series launching Wednesday on Netflix, is not the place to go for illuminating interpretation and analysis of paintings of soup cans, celebrities, news taboos and of disasters, not to mention the racy films, that made Andy Warhol (1928-1987) an international sensation in the 1960s.
Most of what the series has to say in this regard is standard stuff about the intersection of commercial media and art, which, frankly, often misses the real point of its incisive Pop brand. (The subject matter of his work is art culture, for example, not pop culture.) Fervent assertions about the unmistakable significance of his art are amplified by the boilerplate promotional fluff of art dealers, curators of museum and others which at this late date hardly need repeating about one of 20 most important and famous artists of the century.
Really, is there anyone left to convince?
Instead, the excellent reason to watch has to be entirely related to something else. Rather than an art story, “The Andy Warhol Diaries” unfolds like a love story.
Or to be more precise, several love stories.
Interior designer Jed Johnson, Paramount Pictures director Jon Gould, painter Jean-Michel Basquiat – Warhol was in love with all three. The varied and deeply felt relationships he had with them for nearly 20 years form the poignant backbone of the story.
Homosexuality in cruelly heteronormative American society in the decades following World War II is the subject of the documentary, framed by Warhol’s love successes and failures. The damage inflicted on any deep homosexual relationship that attempts to overcome repressive and punitive social barriers is magnified by the artist’s cultural centrality and celebrity status.
“The Andy Warhol Diaries” is based on the big 1989 book of the same title edited by Pat Hackett, a longtime confidant of the artist and co-author with him of “Popism: The Warhol ’60s”, an inside story of his first career. (She is one of many people interviewed in the documentary.) It would seem that it started as daily record keeping for tax purposes, intended to record her skyrocketing expenses. Warhol was a hugely successful commercial artist – and quite wealthy because of it, earning up to $500,000 inflation-adjusted a year – before launching a well-placed wrench into a haughty, exclusive art world.
Almost every morning between November 24, 1976 and February 17, 1987, five days before the artist’s untimely death from gallbladder surgery at age 58, Hackett telephoned Warhol to transcribe his recitation of this what he had done the day before. She extracted the 807-page, gossip-filled tome from 20,000 pages of transcript.
For those with the stamina to read its seemingly endless trivialities about who went where, when, with whom; and what they wore, ate or stammered; and why the plumber never came to fix that broken bathroom faucet, the book was controversial. His feints, dodges, and occasionally outlandish observations courted autobiographical self-glorification. (It has no index, so there’s no jumping to names in bold.) Artistically, the years it covers were largely fallow, compared to the virtuoso and groundbreaking work of the 1960s. .
Netflix producer Ryan Murphy and co-executive producers Dan Braun, Josh Braun, Stacey Reiss, Stanley Buchthal and writer-director Andrew Rossi (“Page One: Inside the New York Times”) have tightened the focus of the story. They drew on a vast trove of compelling archival photography and film befitting an iconic artist of a burgeoning media age, giving the program an intimate, scrapbook-like feel.
One of the claims to Warhol’s enduring fame, after all, is his pivotal role in breaking down the ingrained stigma around camera work as art, which he accomplished through the wise use photo serigraphs. After the hand-painted Campbell’s soup cans, the great series of Warhols of the 60s – Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley, Jackie Kennedy, the electric chairs, the race riots, the most wanted by the FBI, the flowers and more – are all drag photographs, snapshots glamorized by applying paint to the canvas.
Even the Kellogg’s and Brillo box sculptures are photo-silkscreen paintings pushed into three dimensions.
The heart of the series’ 6.5-hour runtime is Warhol’s active romantic life. Not only did he have one, but also the conventional assumptions that he didn’t are themselves common symptoms of Puritan public repressions around LGBTQ life.
Warhol was not asexual, as is often said. Deep emotional and intellectual attachments to men did not escape her, despite a public persona that often seemed empty.
Culture, like nature, however, abhors a vacuum which, in the vacuum of Warhol, was filled with market-oriented enthusiasms. In contrast, the documentary considers him in serious American social history.
The closet as a reaction to barriers to career advancement. Effemininity and masculinity. The phenomenon of open secrecy, in which “everyone knows but no one says anything aloud” (see: Liberace, Paul Lynde, etc.). The tight identification made between homosexuality and sex. And more.
Warhol had romantic attachments of varying sizes and durations. Some were relatively brief – photographer Edward Wallowitch in the late 1950s, poet John Giorno in the early 1960s, business assistant Sam Bolton in the 1980s. Two were longer. Johnson moved in with Warhol in 1968 following a violent shooting attempt on the artist’s life. A dozen years later, as this relationship was unraveling, Warhol met Gould.
WASP-y, fun, bicoastal, semi-enclosed, professionally accomplished and 25 years younger than Warhol, Gould died of complications from AIDS in 1986 at the age of 33. “The Andy Warhol Diaries” positions him as the great love of the artist.
Perhaps the most strained of Warhol’s male relationships was the platonic relationship with Basquiat, the brilliant young artist whose career was booming while that of the older artist remained stubbornly stalled. (“I’m looking for ideas,” he said plaintively more than once in his diary.) In 1984, with an art market on fire, the two began collaborating on paintings. The canvases are not very artistic, Basquiat’s frequent deft erasures of Warhol’s one-dimensional commercial iconography being their most intriguing feature. (A play about their partnership, “The Collaboration,” opened to good reviews last month at the Young Vic Theater in London.)
Heterosexual, unlike Warhol, Basquiat certainly understood the crushing brutality of a pervasive bigotry, which the two artists confronted from different angles. A searing moment in the film comes when Basquiat annihilates an interviewer’s ignorant investigation of the young black painter’s use of street imagery with the searing line, “You think I’m a monkey? The occasional cruelty to Warhol is mocked in clips from critics Hilton Kramer and Robert Hughes.
As Basquiat’s career demands increased and his drug addiction worsened, he began to distance himself from Warhol. Basquiat died of a heroin overdose at age 27, just 18 months after Warhol’s senseless death.
“The Andy Warhol Diaries” opens with a remarkable look at the gritty Pittsburgh of the painter’s impoverished youth. The series then makes the surprising but wise decision to skip roughly the 1960s, in keeping with the book’s timeline. When he returns to groundbreaking art in the later installments, he doesn’t have much of interest to say.
Yet today, with more than a dozen state legislatures actively denying discrimination protections for LGBTQ people, advancing horrific bills that target transgender children, and allowing the use of religion to deny equality, this defect does not matter much. What the documentary says about Warhol’s significant homosexual loves is revealing, and it is also essential to know it.
“The Diaries of Andy Warhol”
When: Any time from Wednesday
Rating: TV-MA (may not be suitable for children under 17 with warnings for nudity, foul language and sexual content)