For the most part, the well-known facts about Andy Warhol’s life are covered in the first hour of Ryan Murphy’s six-part Netflix documentary The Andy Warhol Diaries. When he was younger, he drew portraits of his classmates in an attempt to stop them from bullying him; he also had a fondness for Campbell’s tomato soup; and he left Pittsburgh in 1949, when he was just 20 years old. After making the switch from graphic design to fine art, he opened The Factory in Union Square, where he exhibited his first soup cans in 1962 and went on to become a pop star by 1968.
Warhol’s inner life is the subject of director Andrew Rossi, who focuses mostly on the artist’s complicated connection with his homosexuality. Using a mix of archival and newly shot material, the documentary tells the story of Warhol’s intense feelings for three key characters: interior designer Jed Johnson, Paramount Pictures vice president Jon Gould, and artist Jean-Michel Basquiat. By all accounts, Warhol’s attraction to Basquiat was parental, sexual, and opportunistic. The primary tone is one of intense loneliness, as a voice like Warhol’s reads sections from his journal, a blend of actor Bill Irwin and a somewhat robotic drone of artificial intelligence.
After leaving Pittsburgh’s oppressive homophobia, he moved to New York City, where other gay artists like Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns radiated a machismo he could not begin to conjure.
Then Rossi turns to Warhol’s relentless cultivation of his own persona. Meticulous yet glamorous—his trademark silver wigs are shown off by Jessica Beck of the Warhol Museum—the artist built a perfectly constructed persona, one that he often used as a defense mechanism. “The way he presented himself was as asexual,” says Fab Five Freddy. “You would hear rumors, but he publicly kept that aspect of his life out of the picture.” In the film, he describes the various young, beautiful, or powerful people whom Warhol regularly surrounded himself with: Keith Haring, Andy Kaufman, Basquiat, and Jon Gould (the subject of his last film). Warhol often hid behind these figures in an attempt to mask his persistent fears of ageing and irrelevance.
Warhol’s diaries, do not remind me of a medieval saints, nor even of a kept mistress, but of the secret lovesick grumblings of servant-boy, frustrated in an attic turret. One therefore assumes that Warhol’s diary is less than a masterpiece of the genre. But this is not the impression conveyed by Mr. Rossi’s film, which insinuates itself into the territory of Proust and Henry James with its wet and spongy footsteps. “I wouldn’t be surprised if they started putting gays in concentration camps,” Warhol writes. It is only what you would expect from such a louche observer, such a tone-deaf man of fashion—those sneakers, those sunglasses!—and such an aesthete, who still, despite his fame and fortune, thought himself a member of some oppressed minority. Much of the language of Warhol’s time is problematic today, including his references to Basquiat as “the big black painter” or Aids as “gay cancer.” You can blame yourself if you remain in doubt about this film’s intentions. Strictly speaking, it has none. It is not trying to understand Warhol or his work, or to interpret either in any way. It is a bath that has been prepared for you; into it you must sink for as long as the water remains warm.