Interview: ‘The Andy Warhol Diaries’ Director Andrew Rossi on the Decade-Plus Journey Documenting an Artist’s Life

The Andy Warhol Diaries is the six-part Netflix miniseries that chronicles the life of Andy Warhol, spanning various aspects of his life from his childhood, artistic inspirations, coming to terms with his queer identity, personal relationships and living in fear of the AIDS/HIV epidemic. This series reveals much about the very complex man through his own words — and in his own voice through the use of cutting-edge AI techniques — reading his diary entries over the years.

In this exclusive interview, director/writer/producer Andrew Rossi chats with Awards Radar on his personal fascination of Warhol, how his art changed throughout several different eras of time, how his identity is showcased within his art, and what he would think of his diaries being revealed for the public to see through this series.

Awards Radar: I want to talk about the yearslong work you’ve invested in with The Andy Warhol Diaries since I know you’ve been involved for the better part of a decade now, or perhaps even more than a decade. So my obvious question at the outset is what was that personal connection that you felt you had with Andy that made this such a passion project for you?

Andrew Rossi: Well, Andy Warhol was always a hero to me. From an early age. I saw his work, and even as a young teenager, I think the question was posed to me, Do you see something in the paintings? And of course, there’s a lot of formal play and then a spectacular color palette that Andy brings to portraits of Marilyn Monroe and Liz Taylor and Elvis Presley. But there was something about his footprint in the culture that also I was drawn to as a young person figuring out my sexuality. He was one of the few figures who wasn’t necessarily explicitly out but was clearly queer and created a safe space on his public access television show and through Interview magazine was someone that I wanted to know more about. And so it wasn’t until 2011 when I had finished filming about The New York Times that I was thinking of another really important cultural institution or figure that has an influence and impact on us, but that we don’t know. So that going sort of within it, humanizing it, reading between the lines of its cultural imprint would be a thrilling journey for the viewer, but also have a sort of broader ethical impact. And I think that that is something that understanding Andy Warhol brings to us, because so much of his public persona was a strategy to obscure his queer identity and to make it more palatable. And that’s a form of almost repression that he had to contend with and a sort of gaslighting that’s resulted in, you know, wonderful queer coded films and other forms of media. But in today’s day and age, again, especially when people are saying, you can’t say that something is gay, there is power in literally speaking it and making it clear. And the diaries were this incredible trove of personal confessions and expressions of ambition and deep love and lust for his boyfriends that bring all of that out in a beautiful way, I think. And so that I sort of felt it was a mission to get the rights to tell the story and then to really immerse myself in the text in an understanding and in a more formal or historical way to see how his personal narrative actually influences a lot of the artwork and hope to tell the story of his life. But also to contribute to. An art, historical and cultural appreciation for what went into his work and how it impacted others.

Awards Radar: It seems like everyone knows who Andy is, but on a very surface level. They just know the Marilyn painting or the soup can and if they had any outlook on Andy as the person, they probably would just view him as a bit of an enigma or ambiguous. Do you think that there’s been any misconceptions that you hope this series has addressed?

Andrew Rossi: The core insight that I come away with understanding is his queerness as it relates to his artwork, is that so many of the pop cultural images and language of advertising have personal resonance for someone who felt a sense of queer longing and found in advertising slogans, a coded expression of his own feelings of aspiration or outsider ness. And so you can see in some of the later work that he’s doing, the black and white ads in the 1980s, that he is looking at advertisements in newspapers and reproducing them just as he did the Campbell’s Soup can. But they have slogans like Repentance in No More or Mark of the Beast. Or Are you different? Like from a comic book with a person having a sort of sunburst coming out of their head. And those are all, in some ways, expressions of a feeling of anxiety around the HIV AIDS crisis that was going on then and a religious sense of guilt and shame. And it comes through really strongly in one word that’s called heaven and hell are one or just one breath away. And so that was sort of this feeling that he had at that time. In the past, I think many have looked at these works as a form of commentary on modern life and on consumerism. And even though that is certainly in there, that’s just one piece of it. But when you appreciate that he’s not just a robot and. A person who’s disassociated from what he’s seeing, but rather is expressing his pain. Then you can look at Marilyn Monroe, for example, the portrait, and see him identifying with her as a tragic figure who suffered from the pressures of her life as a celebrity and ultimately had a very sad end to her life. Elizabeth Taylor also struggled with her weight over the years and with different addictions. And she is a queer  icon for that reason. And so when we look at Andy as a flesh and blood gay man and see his artwork as a reflection of those interests and those those feelings, I think that those paintings are not just a cold, you know, representation of of the alienating pop culture, but they’re actually. Really poignant. Yeah.

Awards Radar: Can you speak to that uneasiness he might have had in his personal relationships and status in the art world, and how that sort of intermingled into wanting to make a concerted effort in that regard about having these underlying messages about himself personally in his art?

Andrew Rossi: Yes, he consistently said, if you want to understand my work, just look at the surface, which was a deflection, like so many other things that he would say in interviews and in conversations with sort of authority figures in the art world in order to hide his queerness, which at that time when he was growing up was illegal and later considered a mental illness. He was extremely strategic about his journey to become a successful artist, and it’s clear that he felt that his truth as a gay man needed to be presented to the world in some way that would be acceptable enough for him to have collectors who are part of high society and for him to be taken seriously in in high art institutions. And one of the first things he did when he was in New York at trying to become a fine artist and not just a commercial artist, was to take these drawings that he had made, which were very explicit homo erotic works depicting young men that he had captured in drawings to the Bodley Gallery, which rejected them out of hand and said, This is not art. We can’t, we can’t hang this. And his friend from Carnegie Mellon, Philip Pearlstein, has told that story about how he was so surprised in a way which is interesting, because we would think that given the homophobia of the time. And he might have shied away from doing this, but he was really so intent on exhibiting in a major gallery that he came forward with that. That lesson stayed with him. Up until, some sort of shift occurred in the 1970s. I think Victor Hugo being one person who really brought him out of his shell and he had in the past, in the 1960s, made many films that included many explicit queer activities. But he was always the sort of voyeur to those experiences as we understand it, from those who were there. And it wasn’t until in the 1970s he starts doing the sex parts Polaroids that he’s actually taking a more active role, even though he’s still behind the camera. He’s literally going to Studio 54 and with Victor Hugo bringing back subjects to the factory. And there are conflicting accounts of what happened. But this comes through in the diaries, because his domestic partner, with whom he shared a bed in his townhouse, found the pictures and felt that this was a violation of their relationship. And so that’s just one, you know, very clear way where we see how his evolution as an artist exploring his queerness impacts the work because he had been doing portrait commissions of celebrities and then did a whole series called The Torsos, which are of men’s bodies and other sexual activities that are that are, you know, frequently put in the back of the museum and show instead of really sort of highlighted and the series, I hope we’re able to to really dig into that kind of work.

Awards Radar: Well, that’s actually a perfect segue to my next question, because in the public square, everyone knows the art pieces, as I mentioned before,like  the electric chair, the Marilyn’s. But it’s contrasted with later work that isn’t as timeless in our history as you just mentioned. Can you speak to why that might be? Is it the eroticism that sort of those in public might have characterized as taboo at the time? And as a result, it sort of suffered as time has gone on in terms of not being as known as his earlier works of art.

Andrew Rossi: I do think that the torsos do not participate in the classic Andy Warhol representation that viewers and critics might have been used to. They were exhibited in Venice in, I believe, 1978. And also maybe in Los Angeles, either in Santa Monica or L.A., but they never sort of took off. They actually appear in the film American Gigolo in the background of the villain’s very slick apartment. And so they were used and I think are interpreted by many as a sort of expression of sleaziness and sort of like guilt versus something that is worthy of art, of artistic appreciation. Andy suffered a sort of a blow to his reputation when he began taking celebrity portrait commissions and getting paid to capture people in the same iconic form that he captured Marilyn and Liz Taylor, but who were not necessarily, you know, cultural figures, but just people who had money to pay him. And so it was very difficult for him to be taken seriously in the late seventies and eighties. Many critics saw him as a has been. But a lot of that work, the Camouflage series, which is sort of the ultimate metaphor for Andy’s effort to hide his true self, the raw Shaq paintings, which are these, you know, beautiful, handmade mass of fruit, you know, several massive canvases showing a Rorschach arc, which also is a meta comment, I think, that he’s making on, you know, the viewer’s engagement with a canvas and seeing in it what they might find versus the painting, telling them, hitting them over the head with what it means. The black and white ads. And then, of course, the Last Supper series are some of the most layered and complex. Expressions of Andy’s practice, because in particular the Big C, which Jessica Beck, the curator at the World Museum, has analyzed includes so many. Silkscreen. It does include some silkscreen elements, I believe, but also the brush, the hand brush work that Andy was inspired to take up again from Jean-Michel Basquiat. And it also has a symbolism, a use of symbolic figures to perhaps comment on religion and the HIV/AIDS crisis taking place at that moment. And John Gould’s death, his last great love, John Gould. The full complexity of that work gets involved with taboo topics like HIV, AIDS, and his love affair with somebody who people didn’t even really appreciate as fully his lover. And it comes at a time when his status in the art world has been diminished. And then also because the other work in the sixties is so great already, people just have not given the time. I think in a serious way, other than Jessica and a handful of others, Donna de Salvo as well, who did the philosophy of later being back again, showed the Whitney and others that recently took place during the COVID pandemic. There’s just not the same level of scholarship around that work.

Awards Radar: And you mentioned Andy was obviously operating throughout his career within the shadow of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. And there’s certainly a lot of tragedy and death to his story and to this series, living in fear of the virus for good reason and his boyfriend having passed away. And there are moments of upbeat-ness when it touches on his relationship with Jean-Michel. But can you speak to this series’ timeliness to today and why it felt right for it to have been brought out into the world for people to see at this moment?

Andrew Rossi: So even though I worked for many years to develop and make the series, it was in production during COVID. And so in a lot of ways it is a COVID baby. And Andy was shot in 1968 and lived with a girl for his whole entire life after that and was really afraid for his health and as a quasi hypochondriac at all times, but especially in the 1980s, felt the threat of HIV AIDS. And in fact, his boyfriend, John Gould, died of AIDS. And so there’s a real melancholy in the diaries. This is a period of time he breaks up with John, his boyfriend of ten years, when he’s trying to rise above a lot of sad events. And so even though he’s going to parties and having a great time, what I took from what he says in the diaries, a real sense of emptiness and trying to understand the meaning of life. And I think for us coming out of COVID and we’re, of course, not fully out of it, just saw some statistics of 3000 people a day died this week alone every single day. That’s basically like 911 happening every day. And we went through a period in which mortality was so much a part of every moment that there’s the melancholy that Andy was experiencing during the HIV/AIDS crisis that comes through so exquisitely. I hope it allows the viewer to get in touch with that feeling of sometimes despair, but also just confusion and trying to try to keep it in. I think all of us in some ways are like wearing that girdle that Andy wore in some form or another. We’d like to put out this image on social media that life is great and that we’re traveling and, you know, having fun meals with friends. But we’re also struggling to understand what this life on this planet means. And that’s something that Andy did in his artwork and also in what he said in the diaries. 

Awards Radar: I would imagine a constant thought in your head while working on this project over the years is Andy’s response. Do you think he’d be impressed, flattered, critical, nervous? All of the above? What do you think would be his reactions to what you created?

Andrew Rossi: I think you’re right. I think it’s all of the above. And I also do think that the other timely component that I never would have thought of is just this fact that even same sex marriage is under attack right now. And it’s remarkable. When I started developing the project in 2011, same sex marriage was still a fight. And so even within that time when it was, you know, legalized by the Supreme Court in 2015 to now, when Clarence Thomas is actually saying that the law doesn’t support it. Who would have thought that we would still be having these conversations and that Andy Warhol’s journey through those issues would be so relevant? I believe that he would be very proud of it. The fact that his diaries resonate with us in a way that we never would have anticipated.

Awards Radar: I want to end this on a lighter note, because as I mentioned at the top, you did receive three Emmy nominations. And I believe it’s your first primetime Emmy nominations for writing, directing and producing. Can you share your reactions to getting the news of just not one, not two, but three nominations and having it be your first, and also what it means for the project to receive this sort of recognition.

Andrew Rossi: I really thought of it in terms of the embrace of Andy Warhol, who’s a figure that I think many felt had been covered already by various documentaries and books. And I think all of us on the project were so thrilled that he was embraced. I think I’m also. Just excited that a work about an artist and in that really takes its time to include the details of his art historical background and a queer subject. And three really vivid queer relationships that form the basis of the series has been embraced. That feels exciting to me.


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