Beginning in 1976, Andy Warhol kept a daily diary – meaning that since Warhol was dyslexic and because he preferred to have assistants do the work for his works, he dictated it over the phone to a writer named Pat Hackett. Hackett had appeared at Warhol’s studio in 1968, a few months after Warhol was shot and nearly died, and had landed a job transcribing Warhol’s phone calls. She would become his main co-author, ghostwriter, or a combination of both.
In the beginning, the reason for keeping a journal was to keep track of Warhol’s daily cash payments. Warhol tried to subtract pretty much everything — takeout, taxi fares, all his groceries and entertainment expenses — from his income tax return. This got him in trouble with the IRS, which seems justified, unless we believe, as many people believe, that Andy Warhol’s greatest work of art was Andy Warhol. In that case, every dollar he spent on himself was actually a business expense.
Eventually, Warhol got into the habit of telling Hackett what he’d been up to the day before—usually a lot, as he socialized non-stop most evenings. According to Hackett, their conversations started around 9 BEN and can take an hour or more. Then Warhol went to work. “The Andy Warhol Diaries” was published in 1989, two years after Warhol died in hospital following surgery to remove his gallbladder. The book will be reissued this spring and a six-part Netflix series based on it (and of the same name) was released in March.
Warhol’s work is notoriously indeterminate. What did he think of Campbell’s soup, car accidents and electric chairs, Marilyn Monroe, Mao? He never said. Some people (usually professional art critics) read social criticism in the work, even though Warhol never seems to have taken a political stance. He was certainly not a political radical. He appears to have been a Liberal Democrat. Others think that the work can be read autobiographically. Netflix’s “Diaries” does an honorable job of raising these interpretive questions without closing them.
Like “The Beatles: Get Back”, and like pretty much anything you can stream these days, “The Andy Warhol Diaries” is too long. Unlike “Get Back,” it’s also very montage-style, that is, rapid-fire footage is used to illustrate pretty much anything that’s being said. But these formal choices do not detract from the impressively thick and sensitively handled account of a life carefully reconstructed by the filmmakers, led by Andrew Rossi, who wrote and directed.
The thickness is made possible by Warhol himself. From an early age, he made a habit of photographing, filming and recording almost everything he did, and he encouraged members of his entourage to do the same. Consequently – and although you get used to it, kind of amazingly – there seems to be a photographic record of almost every dinner Warhol attended, every trip he took, every club he visited. The Netflix show is a big part of how mysterious and unknowable a human Warhol was, but we need to know more about him than any artist who ever lived. He took everything in and rarely threw anything away. Warhol is the work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction.
The voiceover in the series is the published diaries read with Warhol’s voice, which, as far as I know, was produced by having actor Bill Irwin read from the book and then use an AI program to create his voice. convert to Warhol’s. It functions. The narration is supplemented with interviews with mostly former employees. Due to the passage of time, these people are relatively uninterested. Particularly captivating are Bob Colacello, the former editor of Warhol magazine, Interview, which is usually treated roughly by Warhol scholars; Jay Johnson, brother of Warhol’s romantic partner Jed Johnson; and the artist and filmmaker Fab Five Freddy. The artists Glenn Ligon, Christopher Makos and Kenny Scharf are insightful, and there are appearances from Tama Janowitz, Debbie Harry, Rob Lowe, Jerry Hall, John Waters and Mariel Hemingway. One survivor who did not participate is Paul Morrissey, who has directed many of Warhol’s feature films, including ‘Chelsea Girls’, ‘Trash’ and ‘Heat’.
The Netflix series follows the diaries. This means it starts in the 1970s, after the Pop period and the Silver Factory, after Warhol had finished setting his footsteps in the history of modern art. His recordings, in 1968, marked the end of something both for Warhol, who was understandably nervous as a person, and for the culture, including the artistic avant-garde in which Warhol worked. Suddenly, artists, and seemingly everyone else, fell in love with money. A close reader of the Zeitgeist, Warhol once again made himself a practitioner of what he called “Business Art”: shooting celebrity portraits and producing serigraphs on commissioned subjects (such as pets) to earn high fees. What he did.
Warhol could be quite cynical about this, and in a sense he again deliberately outraged the purists by exposing the commercial bones of art making. But he must have felt that his creative powers were crumbling and that he was in danger of repeating himself. He was in danger; he repeated himself. There were flashes of conceptual brilliance: the “Sunset” series, in which the sun looks like both a mushroom cloud and a Rothko, a beautiful image of the Cold War; the “Oxidation Paintings”, faux Pollocks created by pissing on the canvas; the series “Camouflage”. But much of the work was simple and empty. Warhol had a good eye; the art generally looks great on the wall, composition and color. But you can often feel that he didn’t really know what he was trying to do.