In the Netflix docuseries Andy Warhol’s diaries, writer and director Andrew Rossi removes the layers of an artist who has had an indelible influence on American culture. Turning to Warhol’s writings published in 1989 by his collaborator and friend Pat Hackett (to whom Warhol dictated his diaries from the mid-1970s until his death in 1987), Rossi sought to find the human being behind the public personality. 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 narrative – to offer a side of Warhol that is little seen (or heard) outside. of his circle of collaborators, employees, superstars and fans of the famous New York Factory.
Rossi also turned to the scholarship of Jessica Beck, curator of the Andy Warhol Museum in the artist’s hometown of Pittsburgh, to guide him through the story of Andy’s love affairs with two prominent men: Jed Johnson and Jon Gould, with to which the artist had long-term relationships. Throughout the series, we see an intimate side of the seductive figure as Rossi examines his legacy as a queer artist.
Andrew, how did you get interested in Warhol as a subject?
ANDREA ROSSI I read the diaries in high school. I grew up in New York City and Andy Warhol and his artwork loomed in my imagination and the journals felt like a critical path to understanding the man behind the myth. It was almost a literary work that I thought could be decoded and that Andy as a character would emerge over 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 she was also working on an incredible reading of Andy’s artwork.
Jessica, can you talk about your journal scholarship?
JESSICA BECK Part of my mission with Warhol is to discover this complicated depth for the artist and give the same reading to the work and allow for these complicated layers. I started thinking about hers Last Supper paintings; everyone has always read them [as] this homage to da Vinci and enclose Warhol in this traditional historical-artistic archive. But he continues to use Christ, bodybuilders and advertising language in these truly unique ways. [People said] Warhol was not the activist they wanted for the AIDS crisis. What people overlooked were these religious paintings, which, to me, were his answer to the crisis. The Catholic Church was such a dominant monster at the time for the gay community. You can see how people would like to overlook this Last Supper serious and any kind of Catholic imagery, because it’s a complicated answer. Jon Gould was [someone who] unlocked everything for me. Who was Jon Gould? Why had I never read about him? He is on so many pages of the diaries and is one of the most photographed people in Warhol’s late career. So many people have deleted it, but I wanted to look a little closer. How has this crisis had a personal impact on Warhol and how is he thinking of painting differently in a political and personal way?
RED Everyone seemed to underestimate Jon and his importance to Andy. The diaries cover from 1976 to 1987, [and those years] they are often a footnote in his bio, and even more so in the art-history scholarship that focuses so much on the 1960s. There seems to be a closure of ranks within the Warhol group to support Jed as the last great love of Andy’s life and to see Jon as an inauthentic romantic partner. But what can’t help but emerge in his journals, particularly in 1981 when Andy first breaks up with Jed, is his search for Jon Gould. It’s lustful, almost harlequin’s language around Andy’s desire for him, and also about his loathing for himself, the feeling of him that he’ll never be good enough to catch Jon. Was Jon really the partner who didn’t give Andy enough, or could Andy never find someone who made him feel whole? These were the questions I wanted to ask, because they come up in Andy’s work. You can get a lot more meaning when you think of Andy as that weird figure looking for his place in the world.
There is an ubiquity to Warhol, and I thought he was very freaked out during his life. But watching the documentary, I realized that his sexual identity was more complicated.
BEAK The biggest myth [that’s] it is perpetuated that Warhol was asexual. For me, this is essentially some kind of inherent homophobia. There are still problems to this day of looking at work in connection with this queer identity and setting aside work that is openly about queer desire. This is the importance of what emerges in the diaries, because Warhol writes so clearly about love, emotion and desire. He says very clearly, “I cried until I fell asleep. 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 had never heard Warhol speak in this way. When you look in the archive, you will find all these poems, love cards and photographs – little torn photographs that looked like they were kept in your pocket. The diaries are essentially a self-portrait.
RED It’s the great paradox that Andy was somehow out, yet wasn’t personally perceived as someone who exists 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 robot [voice] to protect himself from falling into the categories of gay man and queer artist.
There are still some who think that being labeled a “queer artist” is limiting – that it is actually somewhat derogatory to be restricted to that identity. It’s so sad that this persists, because once again, when you don’t take into consideration Andy’s love life and his humanity – which is largely driven by his romantic dimensions – you lose a lot of meaning. This is another reason why I was attracted to Jessica. She emerges throughout the series not only as an expert, but as a dramatic figure in conflict at times with certain members of Warhol’s group. As she puts it in one of her essays about her, understanding Andy’s romantic relationships also requires a space for homosexual love.
BEAK We connected through this idea of taking a marginal figure in Warhol’s life and putting him back at the center, making Jon one of those central links in his history and artistic life. It’s so interesting how his sexuality is treated differently every decade. When he first arrived in New York in the 1950s, he was called “swish” – he is too gay, too revealing. In the 1980s he is not an activist, he is not with us in this fight against AIDS. He was constantly judged, criticized and maligned.
What was the reaction in Warhol’s circles? Have any of their views changed?
RED I look at Twitter, a little with half-open eyes, looking at what people are saying. It is incredibly moving. There are people who tweet about their cathartic experiences while watching the show. And then there are people who lived the moment they watched it. Even [photographer] Christopher Makos, who I think was a little reluctant to read about Andy’s weirdness 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 both sides of that spectrum, and maybe that’s how it should be: the work is open to interpretation. I hope the series is just another flurry in an ongoing conversation. Hopefully, we’ll never understand Andy.
BEAK I was shocked at how many people I knew were watching him in Pittsburgh; we are somewhat desensitized to Warhol. When you come out of the Pittsburgh bubble, people are embracing it in a very important way. I feel that Christopher Makos had this whole new vision of life and his contribution to Warhol. See that footage of him and hear Warhol [say how much he] I really enjoyed traveling with Christopher, I think it resonated very deeply with him. Andrea provided it [framework], which is quite remarkable. Warhol’s crew of scholars are such a critical group. I don’t know where they land there. I have not personally heard many of them. As with any archive, there is always resistance to change. This offers an option for a new perspective. We all love Warhol from the 1960s, but there is so much more to his life and career, and there is so much more to him as a person.
Interview modified for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in a standalone June issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.