The Nothing Special
April 14, 2022
“When things actually do happen to you, it’s like watching TV,” Andy Warhol once observed. But what is that like? Last month, Netflix released The Andy Warhol Diaries, a six-episode adaptation of the eponymous 1989 book compiled by Pat Hackett, who received the artist’s dictations over the phone almost every morning during the last decade of his life. Unsure of what to make of this intimate, fragmented portrait, we invited Bruce Hainley and Kristian Vistrup Madsen to talk it out.
KRISTIAN VISTRUP MADSEN: Episode 1 is haunted (first by the E! True Hollywood Story format of the interviewees, their pointless little snippets) by a recurring contradiction: We’re told that Andy was shy, that he did not put himself in the work—but then, here we are, looking at his underwear, his wigs, his corsets, wheeled out like forensic evidence. Not so dignified, I should say. It’s a conflict that is epitomized by the AI voice-over, which is a hinge both for proposed authenticity—that we are seeing and hearing the “real Warhol”—and for his fascination with machines, fakeness, and reproducibility. So far the show has not installed a great sense of self-consciousness with regard to these choices.
It reminds me of two things: first a Hannah Arendt exhibition I saw a few years ago which included her fur coat and cigarette case. How far this desire for the person will go, even when, as in the cases of Warhol and Arendt, that person went to great lengths in their work to avoid precisely that. And then the biography Adam Phillips wrote about Freud. He spends most of it saying how Freud invented biography as a mode of storytelling meant to collapse by exposing its own structure. The point of psychoanalysis is that you don’t “find yourself” in the story but in its rubble, and so the task of telling Freud’s story is absurd. I wonder if Warhol is not the same?
This conundrum is quickly followed by the question: Why this documentary now? To supply the missing pieces that will finally make Andy the same as us? To pacify what is difficult (and brilliant) about his art: that it appears unfeeling, voyeuristic, extractive, maybe even destructive? When Rob Lowe said Andy would have loved it today, Lowe was thinking, I think, of how social media gives everyone their own Factory in which they can produce their image and some kind of fame. But I wonder if that is true? Do you think Andy would have loved it today?
BRUCE HAINLEY: Andy would be ninety-four if he were still alive. Jasper Johns just got fêted with dual, mirroring shows at the age of ninety-one. The sea anemones of his wigs, spread out for forensic examination, with the variegated corsets and porn magazines and et cetera, et cetera: We keep sorting through the pharaonic chambers of the time capsules to understand . . . what? Would we glean any more about him, glean any better, if he were still alive? Would he be the éminence grise, the productive figment unpacking this portmanteau shambles we call existence? I don’t know. I’d quickly follow these questions by one more: What do we want of these bloated, wavering, sometimes so compelling, often just omnipresent (few, if any, contemporary passage or space doesn’t try to manage some pretense to art-adjacency) things that get called art. On a people-mover in a big airport, in a café toilet, emblazoned on the protective walls of a construction site, glaring across every screen: All of that is art, or, I guess, “art.” Perhaps more than any notion of self-as-brand or the microtonal changes from fame to celebrity to has-been to oblivion (and back), Warhol predicts the relentless omnipresence of art. Could all of it mean something, he wondered. One might as well start sorting the grains of sand on the beach for nirvana.
KVM: I think the scare quotes are what make the difference. If “art” is omnipresent, it’s also invisible. We live in an image culture steeped in sentimentality, confessionalism, myths of authenticity and self-empowerment—a far cry from the glamourous slipperiness Andy so enjoyed about it. Pictures were an escape for him, a way to be someone else, to produce yourself as content in this way that is now ubiquitous as well as a form of labor. (It was a more straightforward way for Andy, too, but as the solution to a problem. Now it simply is the problem).
John Waters said something to the tune of: “Then he did the soup cans, and it was all over.” That really fascinated me. What was over? Is it still over? It relates to the decadence of the disco years and what Diana Vreeland said about Pagan Rome, that it’s what we all want. A moment of final expenditure that just goes on and on, self-cannibalizing. That’s also what I mean by extractive: Does it use as its raw material something we can’t get back? It’s like a real estate bubble, value produced from inflation. He said it himself about some party: It’s incredible, but how can it last?
BH: Ah, Paramahamsa Waters, ever sage. I took it to mean: What had formerly been understood as the parameters of art was DOA. Defunct, perhaps forevermore. Your questions led me ask: Why is this moment so enraptured, so convinced, by art and its doubles? Warhol’s remorseless but also giddy pursuit was to see art as a test site: Andy dropped an A-bomb which is the Art-bomb, and, as Wayne Koestenbaum reminds us, America dropped the A-bomb on Andy’s birthday. Something was over in a blinding flash. When Drella commemorated that epistemic explosion in 1965 with Atomic Bomb we had, Koestenbaum writes, “an image of Andy as international trauma.” With Warhol, we get, in the paintings, an art of traumatic repetition, mirroring our lives, our notions of self, of identity, as fragments, languages of loss. Disruption as our inheritance. Of course, complicating this dirge is a profound pursuit of happiness and pleasure—and one might have to turn away from the paintings to see this most clearly, toward the films and social practice of his going-out every night. Jonas Mekas called Warhol’s films a “cinema of happiness.” Happiness comes in as many shades as nail lacquer, and I would argue we still don’t know how to reckon with Warhol’s cinema of happiness, examples of which—Screen Tests, Couch, Vinyl, My Hustler, Paul Swan, Mrs. Warhol, to name only a few—prove the equals of anything vying for the name of art in the twentieth century. Documents of desiring and the most cogent deconstruction of a documenting-function, as Callie Angell, goddess bless her, explained: “cinema verité has that myth of documentary filmmaking, which is that you’re seeing something that would be happening anyway if the camera weren’t there . . . But Warhol’s films are always something that you’re seeing, that is happening, only because the camera is there.” I would add that the difference between those two ways of seeing can be, at times, hard to see.
KVM: This idea of Andy as an “image of international trauma” and Mekas calling the films a “cinema of happiness” make a great pair. It is between these two assertions that we find Warhol: sad, anxious, and disappointed, an emblem of a culture stuck in morbid overdrive. This is partly, as you say, because the series is limited to the time of the diaries, after the ’60s. But still, to place these affects so centrally in a portrait of America and New York at the height of its power is both remarkable and completely spot on.
BH: Director Andrew Rossi wants to unlock the pandora’s box of Andy’s love life; he allows emotion and sexual desire to suffuse everything, not necessarily an unwelcome event, given the drumbeat of how cold, distant, and “confused” Drella is often claimed to be, especially when it came to interpersonal dynamics. Hilton Als’s searching address to “Warhol-as-she,” Warhol as mother of the House of Drella, is helpful to vogue against this tedious catechism. I do wish the accomplice or double—I mean, what do we do with the wild fact that two of Andy’s long-term partners, Jed Johnson and Jon Gould, were both identical twins?—had been finessed instead of the couple, still the cultural doxa for being “successfully” adult. Our vocabulary, even much less our philosophy, for how people desire is still so miserable, stingy. Shout-out to Lisa Janssen, the series’ archival producer, and her team: The unbelievably moving archival video footage (Jed introducing Archie Warhol to the Factory!), audio tapes, the searching knowledge and judicious use of previous filmmakers’ work—key parts of David Bailey’s crucial Warhol are used to great effect—make this a trove of never really seen Warholiana. And just when you think you’ve seen it all—there’s still more. Kudos also to Rossi for actually reading the Diaries, by which I mean thinking about what these words, mediated by Pat Hackett, produce on the level of the biographeme.
KVM: You’re right, the archival footage is very moving—and strikingly abundant. That weekend in Cape Cod is documented back-to-back in both photographs and video recordings. It’s like watching someone’s Instagram Stories. The series tries so hard to persuade us that these relationships were “real,” and yet, like Warhol’s films from the ’60s, they seem to take place “only because the camera is there.” Andy puts scare quotes around Jed and Jon, with their weird, amputated names, already as if made up. “Stop invading my privacy,” Jon says when Andy films him. And it is interesting that they, aside from being twins and looking like Ralph Lauren adverts, are both in the business of making up: interior design and Hollywood. Perhaps they never really emerge from the fogs of fiction or fantasy because that was what they were to Andy. “People’s fantasies are what gives them problems,” he says, and intimacy, as one of the talking heads asserts, is a form of tension for him.
I could not get over Jed’s suicide attempts, and how poorly Andy seems to have behaved after the second one. At this point Andy becomes recognizable as the blueprint for a certain personality in the art world who believes that their anxiety and poor self-esteem can excuse their narcissism, and that a desire to love, especially if unhappily, can compensate for a pathological inability to do so. I was annoyed. How he styles himself as downcast and wounded can become at times just too incongruent with his immense ambition. In Episode 3, Andy wants to be a model—“just another pretty face”—but what is the status of this as performance? If we take it seriously, Andy is an adult with a teenager’s anxieties—relatable, sure, emblematic, certainly, but interesting, maybe not—and if we don’t, he’s cynical. That he manages to stay on the fence is an almost uncanny miracle. In this, he anticipates both MTV and Ryan Trecartin: the phenomenon as well as its entropic metaversion. When they do the Nancy Reagan cover for Interview at the same time the pictures of Andy in drag will be on view in California, he remarks to the diary, “my reputation will be ruined.” But how? To me it seems perfectly slippery and two-faced, another successful crossing of the tightrope.
BH: You keep striking this important note: this slipperiness, this two-faced (and dual-facing) oscillation, double trouble, that is part of Warhol’s provocation, his silver ironies. Is all his work—is art itself—just a screen for our self-projection, or can we sense and know something about the artist? Not to be coy: I hope not only self-projection, how terribly lonely that would be, and yes, I believe we can know something about the artist through his work, but I’m not sure exactly what. Ours is a time in which so much art is valued for its revelatory, identificatory truth-telling potential. Warhol spins this desire like the most ruthless politician or PR agent. Mike Kelley called him the “ultimate chameleon,” and suggested that perhaps any take on Warhol tends toward oversimplification.
KVM: The episode on Basquiat is at least fifteen minutes too long. But in the depths of it we get some raw glimpses of what seems like a real creative deadlock for Andy. When Robert Hughes said that Andy’s paintings are “less painted than registered,” “to be glanced at like a TV screen,” he was completely right, but, I think, wrong in his assessment that that made them bad. But when the choir of believers try to tell us that the Rorschach paintings are still “ahead of their time,” I am not so sure. As Andy poses with an icon painting of Barbie, it’s pretty clear that the wave he crested in the ’60s has become the sea where everyone’s drowning. When Basquiat pays back the $40 Andy gave him during his early years hustling postcards on the streets, Andy notes: “I suppose that’s all I’d given him; I thought it was more.” It hints at the greater question of artistic inheritance. Looking at Basquiat and Clemente, the legacy is Rauschenberg’s, or Johns’s—if anyone in Pop—not Andy’s. At the same time, his relationship with Basquiat makes clear the link between the sophisticated performativity of Andy’s mode of Pop art, and the post-studio aspects of “the new painting,” where fashion and social networks are also crucial parts of the equation, not as conceptual pivots but as a volatile force that can make or break the artists in turn.
Basquiat shares in Andy’s sadness, and sensitivity, and how troubled he is. But he doesn’t protect himself, like Andy does, behind medial self-consciousness. This new art, with its demand that artists “express” themselves, seems reckless in comparison. Media is not a topic, in Warhol, but a vehicle. How crass and frantic Schnabel is in his attempt to steer it. Basquiat tries to be cool. When an interviewer asks him what he’s angry about and he says “I don’t remember,” it’s framed as a Warhol move, but he’s so tender and earnest, and vulnerable in that way. Andy’s game with fame was an expert disappearing act. His level of performativity could repel and absorb every gesture, every potential critique. But for the artists around him, Basquiat and Co., it was a black hole they shouldn’t get too close to.
BH: Oh, I find this episode to provide some of the tenderest moments in the entire series—and let’s not, even in this miserably cruel world, abandon the possibility of being tender, representationally and actually. The way Andy touched Jean-Michel and allowed himself, this untouchable, to be touched by him. The moment when Jean-Michel repositions Andy’s crossed arms to a more open position and says “Here, here—you look too guarded.” It’s such a complex and complicated dance, this interracial intimacy and artistic competition between them. Als limns the collaboration so well: “When I look at those paintings, I see that struggle. I see [Warhol] hiding. I see him . . . wanting to be valorized, in some way, but also . . . protected.” Of course, Andy “protected” himself with speed (in the ’60s), blank affect, crystals, and a rotating entourage; Basquiat “protected” himself, at least buffered himself, with drugs. On some level, given the world, how could they not? Glenn Ligon’s finest moment in the series is his wondering and wandering about the night Basquiat takes Andy to his dad’s house for a celebratory family dinner: “I would love to know how Andy presented himself to Basquiat’s relatives. What did they imagine this white man to be . . . to Basquiat? [. . .] It must have been a really interesting dinner.”
Without grinding gears too much by recalling, via Avital Ronell, that Valerie Solanas might provide the most wincing study of Andy-adjacent valerization, I wouldn’t want to shirk some of the most brilliant and annihilating thinking about Warhol, which arrives from Kara Walker, with greatest affection:
Perhaps with a little less Mariel Hemingway and Jeffrey Deitch, some acid would have made the etching of Warhol Diaries starker, but I’d also like to see the collaboration between Warhol and Basquiat as productive as Kander and Ebb’s, as winning as Martha Stewart and Snoop Dogg’s. A rapprochement of love—friends with benefits, of all sorts.
KVM: What Kara Walker writes is extraordinary. “I find the cruelty of this work to be its necessity” and “the ability his work has to strip its viewers of their moral compass is part of its power,” I think, really sum up this sense of vertigo Warhol induces. A mix of banality and genius; the entire theme of his art is distance, but it is too close for us to see. It seems obvious, given the direct and indiscriminate way his art acted as a flypaper for society, that racism would be a part of it. But also that love would. Do you think Andy Warhol was more provocative for being influential than he was for being queer? After all, it was Valerie Solanas—much more than the “actress” the series styles her as—who wanted to cut his head off for being King, not the establishment.
BH: I’m not sure those two things are so easily separated—and thinking about their imbrication might require a longer meditation on power and the inability to confront its flame-to-our-moth natures. A friend and I got into an argument with someone recently about what to do with Victor Hugo, who, I’m sure, was a lot of the time a nasty piece of work. But he also played a part: Venezuelan permission-giver and sexual daredevil. He’s a reminder that art and sex and life can be messy, too much, not good for you, that part of cultural power can be in not redeeming anything. Watching the Republicans do their appalling but so utterly hackneyed dumbshow-as-ersatz-interrogation of Ketanji Brown Jackson, I kept hoping for a gang of malcontents to cause havoc, Valeries to start cutting up men in every direction, making Miss Lindsey conduct a Turd Session before gutting him as Victor fisted him.
KVM: So much of Warhol’s art is about taking the things from life and culture that are not “good for you” and its power, as you and Walker say, in not redeeming anything. In the penultimate episode, I started to get the sense that art, for Warhol, stands in place of something else. If I could just do this, he says when he starts appearing in advertisements, then “I wouldn’t have to paint.” Was art always a compromise because the mainstream didn’t want him, or didn’t have space for what he had to give? There is an irony to how, late in his career, he comes back to advertising. It relates to this idea you put forth about art becoming ubiquitous. “He wanted too much,” says Donna de Salvo, and you wonder to what extent his eternal dissatisfaction was a matter of being marginalized, or if his hunger for influence and fame was simply insatiable. Probably these are two more things that cannot so easily be separated.
In the last episode, death abounds. After Jon Gould’s—an eternal shout-out to the magnificence of his collection of knitwear, always so boldly paired—Andy’s own—to have been that Italian lady who coughed on him; the horror—then Basquiat, Keith Haring, and Jed, literally exploding in midair: This is senselessness and tragedy in such abundance it becomes almost farcical. Everything I’ve thought about all those people is put into relief at that point, as if it is only then that they become real.
In the diary, Andy’s reflections about when reality feels real, and when like TV. Getting shot wasn’t real, he says, and when the girl ran off with his wig at the book signing it also wasn’t real. That the book has the same title as Baudrillard’s of a few years later, America, is almost too apt.
It is as if, after Andy’s death, it becomes possible for the series to take upon itself this question of reality and fiction as well, confronting Pat Hackett with the ways in which the diarist, too, avoids the truth. The strong reluctance of Chris Makos to read Warhol’s gayness into his works also speaks volumes about the bizarre avoidance of this topic, whether out of courtesy, will, or denial. I started wondering: When was the first time I realized Warhol was gay? Repetition, capitalism, the icons and their relation to religion—that coin dropped on a school trip to Hamburger Bahnhof when I was a teenager. And I remember being so fascinated by that. But the gayness? Though I was certainly looking for those things in art at that time, it wasn’t until long, long after that I found them in Warhol.
De Salvo says about the “Death and Disasters” paintings: “This is the dark side . . . it’s not all Pop and bright colors.” That series is often mobilized as proof that Warhol was a “good artist” who treated serious topics, but maybe its appeal is rather that it makes much more explicit the death drive that is the force behind so much of the bright and poppy work, really, a production line for vanity pictures.
Sibyl Moholy-Nagy called Bauhaus modernism “a damaging chase into nothingness.” She was referring to the application of Bauhaus ideas in the development of war technologies at MIT in the ’60s, but it also reminds me of this poster from the ’20s, which showed the increasing simplicity of Bauhaus chairs throughout that decade, joking that in the future, we would be sitting on thin air. The destructive impulses so evident in that last episode, made me think that the endpoint of Minimalism was not nothingness, or Zero-movement conceptualism, but Andy: stuff disappearing into more stuff; that lack of distinction, made famous in Blade Runner, between tears and rain. In that way, Andy got what he wanted in becoming “just another pretty face”; another fatality in the dream factory. I think the success of the series is in showing us how much humanity and warmth and hope Andy, the “recording angel,” found a place for in his rather brutally honest portrait.
BH: Oh, the mic drop of Sibyl’s statement—and your seeing this matter of “stuff disappearing into more stuff” as the philosophical conundrum that Andy never stopped pondering, in almost every medium and manner available, on both the level of the conscious and unconscious.
It’s funny, your question about Andy’s gayness. Perhaps it’s generational? The climactic scene in American Gigolo, Bill Duke’s pimp Leon making life difficult for Richard Gere’s Julie, played against a frieze of posters for Warhol’s “Torso” series—that alone was enough of a gay beacon. I’ve always been utterly perplexed by people’s inability—through ungenerosity, sheer ignorance, or denial—to see Andy as gay, as swish and out as Bobby Short or Truman Capote, one of his long-term idols. I remember buying Music for Chameleons at Waldenbooks at the local mall. It had a shimmering lavender dust jacket with the title and Capote’s name in a bold, curvaceous font. I was that kind of young fag. Much of Capote’s final gay bible had been published in Interview. Living in rural Pennsylvania, I subscribed to Interview when I was fifteen, after having seen a copy on a magical trip to a kind of ersatz Fiorucci in Philadelphia called Plage Tahiti. Interview was a homo lifeline, and it was for so many men of my generation. The photographer Jeff Burton and I often sigh dreamily about the importance of Andy’s magazine: its hunky monthly Interman; Chris Makos tracking shirtless partying beauties; Richard Bernstein’s glam covers. I carried around Metropolitan Life and could quote epigrams from Social Studies because of Fran Lebowitz’s writing for Interview. People still forget Fran’s wonderfully, lazily belated and complicatedly dyke-y retort to La Sontag’s “Notes on Camp” which was dedicated to Oscar Wilde, “Notes on Trick,” which Fran dedicated to Lord Alfred Douglas. These final halcyon moments “before” AIDS (let me set them to the beats booming at Paradise Garage) how splendidly complexly driven by the pleasure principle they were—not to romanticize anything, but to admit that for some of us there was nothing coded about what Andy and entourage were putting forth. My dressed-up look was a shirt, tie, blazer, and jeans. It’s still a good look. It’s still a good gay look, and it’s Andy’s.
Warhol’s our (gay) recording angel and (gay) Benjaminian Angel of History, blown into the future, witnessing the piling up of ruin, some of it his own (gay) life, a mess like all of ours.