How Netflix’s ‘The Andy Warhol Diaries’ Embraces the Artist’s Queer Legacy: “Hopefully, We Never Figure Out Andy”
In Netflix’s docuseries The Andy Warhol Diaries, writer-director Andrew Rossi peels away the layers of an artist who had an indelible influence on American culture. Turning to the writings by Warhol that were published in 1989 by his collaborator and friend Pat Hackett (to whom Warhol dictated his diaries from the mid-1970s to his death in 1987), Rossi sought to find the human being behind the public persona of pop artist, celebrity and provocateur. The series uses Warhol’s own words — and a version of his voice, with the help of AI technology and readings from actor Bill Irwin, as narration — to offer a side of Warhol little seen (or heard) outside his circle of collaborators, employees, superstars and hangers-on at the famed Factory in New York.
Rossi also turned to the scholarship of Jessica Beck, a curator at the Andy Warhol Museum in the artist’s native Pittsburgh, to guide him through the narrative of Andy’s love affairs with two important men: Jed Johnson and Jon Gould, with whom the artist had long-term relationships. Through the series, we see an intimate side of the beguiling figure as Rossi examines his legacy as a queer artist.
Andrew, how did you get interested in Warhol as a subject?
ANDREW ROSSI I read the diaries in high school. I grew up in New York City and Andy Warhol and his artwork loomed large in my imagination, and the diaries felt like a critical pathway to understanding the man behind the myth. It was almost a work of literature that I thought could be decoded, and that Andy as a character would emerge throughout the course of the 1,000 pages. And it’s really a love story, which is why Jessica’s scholarship was so critical, because it turned out that she had also been working on an incredible reading of Andy’s artwork.
Jessica, can you talk about your scholarship on the diaries?
JESSICA BECK Part of my mission with Warhol is to uncover this complicated depth to the artist, and to give that same reading to the work and to allow these complicated layers. I started thinking about his Last Supper paintings; everyone has always read them [as] this homage to da Vinci and locking Warhol into this traditional art-historical archive. But he goes on to use Christ and bodybuilders and advertising language in these really unique ways. [People said] Warhol wasn’t the activist that they wanted for the AIDS crisis. What people overlooked were these religious paintings — which, for me, was his response to the crisis. The Catholic Church was such a dominant monster at that time for the gay community. You can see how people would want to overlook this Last Supper series and any sort of Catholic imagery, because it’s a complicated response. Jon Gould was [someone who] unlocked everything for me. Who was Jon Gould? Why had I never read about him? He is in so many pages of the diaries, and he’s one of the most photographed people in Warhol’s late career. So many people have written that off, but I wanted to look a little closer. How did this crisis impact Warhol personally, and how is he thinking about painting differently in a political, personal way?
ROSSI Everyone seemed to underestimate Jon and his importance to Andy. The diaries cover 1976 to 1987, [and those years] are frequently a footnote in his biography, and even more so in the art-historical scholarship that focuses so much on the 1960s. There seems to be a closing of ranks within the Warhol group to support Jed as the last great love of Andy’s life and to view Jon as not an authentic romantic partner. But what can’t help but come through in the diaries — particularly in 1981, when Andy first breaks up with Jed — is his pursuit of Jon Gould. It’s lustful, almost Harlequin-romance language around Andy’s desire for him, and also his self-loathing, his feeling that he will never be good enough to capture Jon. Was Jon really the partner who was not giving Andy enough, or could Andy never find someone who would make him feel whole? These were the questions I wanted to ask, because they emerge in Andy’s work. You can get so much more meaning when you think of Andy as that queer figure who is looking for his place in the world.
There’s a ubiquity to Warhol, and I assumed that he was very much out in his lifetime. But watching the documentary, I realized his sexual identity was more complicated.
BECK The biggest myth [that’s] perpetuated is that Warhol was asexual. For me, that’s essentially a kind of inherent homophobia. There are still issues to this day of looking at the work in connection to this queer identity and sidelining the work that is overtly about queer desire. That’s the importance of what comes out in the diaries, because Warhol is writing so clearly about love, emotion and desire. He says very clearly, “I cried myself to sleep. Jon didn’t call me back from California.” Or, “I’m trying to fall in love with Jon Gould. I don’t know what to do.” I’d never heard Warhol talk in this way. When you look in the archive, you’ll find all these poems and love cards and photographs — little ripped-up photographs that looked as if they were kept in a pocket. The diaries are essentially a self-portrait.
ROSSI It’s the great paradox that Andy was out in some ways, and yet wasn’t personally perceived as someone existing in a queer space. He occupies, by virtue of his considerable efforts, a unique cultural space, where he transcends a sexual identity and is a guru-like figure, an alien with a robotic [voice] to protect himself from falling into the categories of gay man and queer artist.
There are still some who feel being labeled as “a queer artist” is limiting — that it’s actually somehow derogatory to be narrowed down to that identity. It is so sad that this persists, because again, when you don’t factor in Andy’s love life and his humanity — which is driven in large part by his romantic dimensions — you miss so much of the meaning. That’s another reason why I was drawn to Jessica. She emerges throughout the series not just as an expert, but as a dramatic figure in conflict at times with some of the Warhol group. As she says in one of her essays, understanding Andy’s romantic relationships also claims a space for queer love.
BECK We connected through this idea of taking a marginal figure in Warhol’s life and putting him back in the center, making Jon one of those central links in his story and his art life. It’s so interesting how his sexuality is treated differently each decade. When he first made it to New York in the ’50s, he’s typecast as “swish” — he’s too gay, too revealing. In the ’80s, he’s not an activist — he’s not with us in this fight against AIDS. He was constantly judged, criticized and maligned.
What has been the reaction in the Warhol circles? Have any of their perspectives changed?
ROSSI I look at Twitter, sort of with my eyes half-open, looking at what people say. It’s incredibly heartwarming. There are people who tweet about their cathartic experiences watching the show. And then there are people who lived through the moment who have watched it. Even [photographer] Christopher Makos, who I think was resistant a little bit to the reading of Andy’s queerness or his legacy as a queer artist, has come to understand his place in Andy’s life in a different way. There are people on either side of that spectrum, and maybe that’s as it should be — the work is open to interpretation. I hope that the series is just one more volley in an ongoing conversation. Hopefully, we’ll never figure out Andy.
BECK I was shocked at how many people I knew were watching it in Pittsburgh; we’re desensitized to Warhol a bit. When you go outside the Pittsburgh bubble, people are embracing it in a really major way. I do feel that Christopher Makos has had this whole new outlook on life and his contribution to Warhol. Seeing that footage of him and hearing Warhol [say how much he] loved traveling with Christopher, I think that really deeply resonated with him. Andrew provided that [framework], which is pretty remarkable. The Warhol scholar crew is such a critical bunch. I don’t know where they land on it. I haven’t heard personally from many of them. Like with any archive, there’s always resistance to change. This offers up an option for a new perspective. We all love ’60s Warhol, but there’s so much more to his life and career — and there’s so much more to the person.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in a June stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.