In Andrew Rossi’s masterful tribute to Andy Warhol, one interviewee says, “I don’t think you will every figure Warhol out, and I hope no one ever does.” Our culture was shaped and changed by Andy Warhol so much that I don’t know if we will ever stop feeling the reverberations of his influence. He will forever remain an enigmatic, mysterious figure no matter how much of his work we consume and analyze. Rossi’s The Andy Warhol Diaries pays tribute to the man behind the Campbell’s can, but Rossi taps into Warhol’s longing for love and his search for affection in a world that might not have been ready for him.
I grew up in Pittsburgh, so Andy Warhol has always been a known figure in my life (The Andy Warhol Museum is over on the North Shore if you happen to be visiting and want to have a truly unique museum-going experience). Rossi saw some of his artwork when he was in New York City, and was pulled into how Warhol’s art speaks to those who may have felt othered or alone.
“Andy Warhol connects with people on many different levels, and people are drawn to him for many different reasons. It’s not just about his artwork. His persona and public performance made him just as famous, and I think some people understand as an effort to deflect homophobic feelings that he’s a freak. Or unusual. Growing up, I saw his artwork in galleries in New York City, and I was drawn to it for the repetition and his color palette. It was glamorous, but it could also be fun. I saw him on cable access television, and there is something about his queerness and how he can play with his image that felt like it created a safe space. That was powerful to see that when I grew up in a homophobic world.”
Rossi’s series could have taken a superficial approach to evaluating Warhol’s work in the art world, but he goes much deeper than that. It’s not entirely about art but about the struggle to get the art on the canvass. How the art work pressured Andy throughout his career. Rossi turned to a private text (written by Warhol and edited by Pat Hackett) to latch onto a more emotional landscape.
“The fact that this person who had such a huge impact on our visual landscape and notions of cultural performance and is so unknown is why I wanted to tell the stories through the diaries. If we don’t understand the person, how do we understand the influence and reckon with its meaning. The diaries give us a window into what he was thinking at different moments, and it’s valuable. And I hope the series humanizes Andy and allows people to understand him in a different way that also unlocks an art historical subtext to his work that makes a real contribution to queer theory and culture.”
It’s mind-boggling how Rossi adapted the diaries into such a comprehensive, moving portrait. There is a hunt for truth and knowledge dealt with such beautiful respect for the subject. When you watch Warhol exploring a new topic or speaking on creating something new in his career, there is such a palpable curiosity. He’s fiercely intelligent but never loses a sense of wonder. I’ve always thought that Warhol was tremendously interested in learning about other’s experiences and points of view, and Rossi’s series captures that curiosity like lightning in a bottle.
“I wrote scripts for the series. When I re-read the Diaries, I knew that I had to hone in on a particular point of view. For me, the most extraordinary revelations were not the scandalous descriptions of other people’s clothing or hijinks but rather, [it’s] the vulnerability that Andy uses to describe his own emotions, his pursuit of love and spiritual meaning. So much of his artwork, in one way or another, is looking to the meaning in consumer culture or the American experience. And so when Andy talks about the fact that he feels empty or has desperate feelings, that felt to me immediately like the gold… And the fascinating thing is that he often times will pivot from talking about spiritual meaning to, “That’s why I’m trying to fall in love now with Jon Gould.” Or, “That’s why I’m looking for love.” And so there’s something about emotional connection and the meaning of life that are connected for Andy. So I thought that a love story would be the best story structure for the series. And so I considered making six episodes in which the three main objects of Andy’s affection occupy two episodes each… I wanted to map out everything Andy was doing for those ten years from 1976 to 1987 and all the artwork he was making and all the archival information that might be able to bring to life those diary entries.I wanted to triangulate those three to create layers to provide the scenes. That was the only way that I could approach such a massive book.”
I wanted to ask Rossi about a private moment between Warhol and Jon Gould, but the moment organically came up in our conversation. This series is also edited within an inch of its life (an Emmy nomination for editor, Steven Ross, please and thank you) using archival footage and moments from pop culture. To see Rock Hudson kissing a character in one of his classic films as Warhol and Gould share a moment of bliss is striking and beautiful. “Nobody knew we were gone,” Warhol tells us.
“It’s a moment that comes in episode four when they are at Jimmy Buffett’s New Year’s Eve party in Aspen. It’s on the heels of Andy’s accident on the snowmobile. When they go to the party, Andy talks about Jack Nicholson arriving and Diana Ross being there, and right before midnight, they go outside while everyone is singing “Auld Lang Syne.” I then cut to a small snippet of Rock Hudson kissing a woman from All That Heaven Allows, and I wanted to show how they would steal a kiss with everyone around.”
Jon Gould died in 1986 at the young age of 33. In the Diaries, there is one note that says, ‘Jon Gould was admitted to New York Hospital with pneumonia.’ Rossi gives him a tender tribute in Diaries by flashing photographs of Gould as gentle piano plays. The loss is deeply felt, even if we aren’t familiar with Gould’s life.
“I really felt a connection with Jon Gould, because there’s something about him living in the closet in the 1980’s when it was professionally almost impossible for him to be out. That felt very human and relatable. I was shocked at the depth of feeling that Andy communicates about him in the diaries. The way that he is absent from the record in many ways or minimized. He appears very little in some books about Andy Warhol. He’s not a big part of a lot of other documentaries. In 2017, I went to film an estate sale of his personal effects that his mother, Harriet Gould, had provided to be sold after she died. In those personal effects were some of his documents of when he worked at Paramount, but there were also poems he wrote to Andy. And letters to his friends from his parents when he was sick and dying in Los Angeles. These people were expressing their condolences, and I got a strong sense of his humanity. The idea that others were skeptical of Andy and Jon’s love is fine, but to trash him or to not understand the life that was lost and how his struggle to be at peace with him resonated with me. It felt so important to me.”
You cannot tell the story of Andy Warhol without exploring the influence and bond between Jean-Michel Basquiat. We see the rise of Basquiat through Warhol’s eyes, and there is a sense of comradery and competition as much as there is collaboration. Ultimately, though, there is love and affection and respect. The art world–and the world at large–would not be the same without these two titans, but their connection made each other stronger.
“I definitely wanted to understand Jean-Michel and Andy’s relationship as a romantic one regardless if there was physical intimacy. There are competing views on that, and, as a journalist, I felt that it was clear that there was love between them. As a filmmaker, I wanted to lean into a cinematic language that would evoke the ineffable love that is erotic. The other thing that is important about their relationship that I don’t think has been widely considered is that Jean-Michel taught Andy so much. We view Andy as the mentor and the stamp of approval of an established artist which is, on some levels, true. Jean-Michel unlocked a whole new approach to Andy’s artwork which harkens back to the early 60s. He is prodded to pick up the brush again. He also incorporates this more symbolic imagery into his paintings. Seeing the model of Jean-Michel using social commentary so clearly in his canvasses leads Andy to a series of artworks that is pivotal to understanding his trajectory and, perhaps, some of his most powerful work.”
Being so close to personal friends of Warhol was a thrill for Rossi. The series includes commentary from photographer Christopher Makos, former assistant Benjamin Liu, curator Donna De Salvo, and Interview magazine editor Bob Colacello. Speaking to these individuals are key because they ground the idea of Andy as a person and not just an icon.
“It really felt like a special gift to speak to people who were one degree removed from Andy. In the moment, filming during the COVID pandemic, it felt like one of the last opportunities to speak to people who were so close to him. A lot of people had passed over the last few years. Benjamin, in particular, was so full of insights and humorous stories. He actually also knew Victor Hugo when he came to New York. He was living in San Francisco and read about Victor and came to New York. He had a unique perspective on Andy and his Studio 54 period. He says Andy’s Sex Parts polaroids are Andy’s way coming to peace with his homosexuality. Christopher Makos introduced Andy and Jon Gould. He was there when Andy needed to rebound from that relationship, and it helped him do the Altered Images Series where Andy is dressing in the persona of different female archetypes. Christopher played a huge role in Andy finding himself, and these people take part of the documentary felt some degree of either closure or another door opening in their relationship with him. With everything that has happened in the last few years, there has been this cultural whiplash in deal with all the changes.”
The Andy Warhol Diaries is streaming on Netflix.