Arts and Entertainment

The Life and Times of an American Icon

A review of the new Netflix series “The Andy Warhol Diaries,” and a consideration of Warhol’s career.

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By Ying Chen

A new series by director Andrew Rossi, “The Andy Warhol Diaries” dives deep into the life and art of Andy Warhol, as well as the intersection of the two. In six episodes, the documentary explores Warhol’s upbringing, rise as an artist, and relationships. The series simultaneously delves into the zeitgeist of the era and into Warhol’s internal spirit, focusing heavily on issues of self image and insecurity as a central factor in his expression and character. Along with firsthand accounts from friends, Warhol’s own recollections present a fresh, authentic recount of the life of an American icon.

The documentary begins with Warhol’s early life as the son of immigrants in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and details the influence of his upbringing on his art. A largely industrial urban center, Pittsburgh itself did not have heavy influence on his work; rather, the church Warhol attended growing up did. The Catholic iconography shown in the church—rich colors, contrast, and two-dimensional figures—is reflected in much of Warhol’s print work. Series of prints of stars like Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor in vivid color make them, in a way, icons of the pseudo-religion that is American pop culture.

Despite the influence the church and his upbringing had on Warhol’s art, being a gay man in a time when most people were intolerant of homosexuality led to ostracization and internal conflict, drawing him to a place that seemed to offer an escape from it all: New York City. After moving in 1949, Warhol was hired as a commercial illustrator before taking his place in the avant-garde art scene of Manhattan in the early ‘60s. In his studio, The Factory, Warhol created films that featured his “superstars” and explored controversial topics like homosexuality in explicit ways. In the Netflix show, clips from his films paired with commentary and reactions show just how shocking, experimental, and revolutionary they were at the time. Interviews with Warhol’s contemporaries and disciples further cement his work as a staple within the art world.

After Warhol became an icon within the art scene, mainstream America soon became obsessed with him too, out of both shock and admiration. Interviews, magazine covers, and photos with celebrities are a constant within the series, and the documentary does well when expressing Warhol’s rise to fame as well as the extent of his art’s reach. While the inner workings of an art scene can often be restricted solely for the enjoyment of art buffs, the wide range of Warhol’s work gives both his art and legacy a unique, fascinating place in American culture. While his early work appealed mainly to a niche audience, popular obsession with Warhol made him an American icon of equal status to the stars he admired through his art.

While much of the series focuses on Warhol’s art and celebrity status, it also details his relationships with himself and others. Despite the graphic depictions of sexuality in his art, Warhol himself often hid his own relationships and sexuality, the result of a cultural stigma surrounding homosexuality. The documentary does extremely well in expressing the complexity of Warhol’s relationships with people like Jed Johnson, a longtime partner of Warhol. Accounts of their relationship express the heavily private attitude of Warhol along with the conflict that led to its end. The discussion of Johnson’s discontent with Warhol’s lifestyle gives this analysis of their relationship an extremely personal edge, but also ties it into the analysis of Warhol as a public figure. While spending so much time on this relationship seems intrusive at first, understanding the intimate aspects of Warhol and Johnson’s relationship proves critical to comprehending Warhol’s art and life. The documentary excels in connecting personal events to Warhol’s public life and in showing the influence of Warhol’s celebrity lifestyle on his ability to maintain a happy relationship.

Through the cinematography, the dichotomous lifestyles of Warhol are perfectly contrasted. Depictions of his private life feature long shots of peaceful images of people accompanied by piano music. Meanwhile, the celebrity lifestyle features flashing images and clips of photoshoots and Studio 54 nightlife, accompanied by fast-paced pop music. The distinctive depictions of the two lives of Andy Warhol allow the documentary to show viewers the root of his personal conflict in a way that both challenges and reinforces the love for the spirit of the era. Outside of the focus on Warhol’s romantic life, the series makes good use of the abundance of information within the diaries, tying everything together to present a cohesive narrative.

With a combination of interviews and diary entries, each episode is able to portray the full story of a particular era within Warhol’s life on an intricate and incredibly personal level. Other icons of the era, like filmmaker John Waters and model Jerry Hall, and Warhol’s close friends provide honest, lively accounts of Warhol and of the era, without shying away from its ugly aspects. In addition to outside accounts, the series is narrated through excerpts from Warhol’s personal diary, which shows his complicated relationship with himself and his image. Insecure about his nose and constantly hiding under a wig, Warhol’s self esteem had a huge influence on his work, which the series depicts beautifully. Excerpts from the diaries, like “I’m just a freak. I wasn’t very close to anyone. Although, I guess I wanted to be,” are placed throughout the series, showing Warhol’s insecurity and feeling of being an outsider despite fame and widespread admiration.

Despite the compelling and emotional nature of the diary entries, some of the focus is shifted away from the content by the use of AI to recreate Warhol’s voice as the narrator. While the voice sounds like Warhol, once its unnatural cadence becomes clear, it’s hard to ignore; it sounds like a robot. In light of recent controversy over the ethics of the use of Anthony Bourdain’s voice in a similar context, the choice is risky, but despite the immediate distraction of the voice, the monotone and almost planned sound of Warhol’s actual speech patterns makes it, in a strange way, work well for his personality. Through the narration, the documentary becomes even more up-close and personal in an inventive and unique way.

While Andy Warhol’s influence is ever-present in art and pop culture, “The Andy Warhol Diaries” showcases his work in a new context. The series delves into the extremely personal aspects of Warhol’s life and brings them to the forefront of the discussion of his art and public life. Photography, interviews, and personal accounts all combine to form an original examination of his life and legacy, one that continues to be the subject of popular fascination and obsession.