On The Couch With Andy Warhol
Updated: Jul 3
Andy Warhol, been there, seen the portraits multiple times and have the fridge magnet. And yet, I am always blown away by a life-size Double Elvis or a room full of Oxidisation paintings. Take your pick: Velvet Underground Andy, Studio 54 Andy, Public Access TV Andy, they all are thrilling and brilliant.
As a teenager, I was entralled by the Sotheby’s 10-day sale of his house contents. I so wanted one of his cookie jars. Cheap, plastic, thrift store stuff. Surely I could secure a winning bid? No chance. One sold for $23,100, two hundred times the estimate.
With our contemporary eye, we may be forgiven for being wary about the awkward, softly spoken, asexual persona. Sometimes the monster hides in plain sight. And the truth was, Warhol could be exploitative, mean and voyeuristic. This was a man who failed to pay the surgeon who performed his life-saving operation after he was shot.
Beyond his art and public image, our understanding of Warhol has been shaped by his posthumous diaries and ghost written ‘philosophies’. These were edited by his friend and long-time collaborator Pat Hackett, and her lens reinforces the curated persona, whilst capturing the glamour, candour and mundanity of round the clock parties with Halston and Bianca, his fear of going broke, obsession with Basquiat and Madonna and meticulous noting down of cab fares. What remains stark is his omission of deeper feelings. At times the diaries seem almost callous in the way he glosses over of the darker aspects of his life, especially as his circle of friends begin to die from AIDS in the 1980s.
Now, a new Netflix documentary series, produced by Ryan Murphy, is reframing much of this. For the first time, Andy is humanised. It may come as a surprise that Andy loved and was loved in return. Firstly, there was Jed Johnson, and later in the early 80s, Jon Gould. These were meaningful, sexual relationships. Andy and Jed shared a bed the whole time they were together.
I have always wondered if Andy did psychotherapy. It is not beyond the realm of possibility. Back in the 70s and 80s, you could not move in Manhattan for shrinks. Woody Allen made psychoanalysis into a running gag, and in 1985, Dr Ruth’s television show was attracting two million viewers per week. Therapy had gone well and truly mainstream, and yet Warhol's diaries make no mention of him doing sessions. Perhaps this was a part of his life he was unwilling to share.
There would have been much to explore: attachment and sexuality, PTSD, complex trauma. As the child of an immigrant family, he experienced poverty, discrimination and deprivation.
Alongside this was his sense of identity: Andy was the sickly kid with blotchy skin and thin hair, secretly homosexual. We can only imagine what that must have been like in 1940s blue-collar Pittsburgh.
The relationship with his mother was complicated. It could be described as narcissistic and engulfing, and yet when he was 4-year-old, he broke his arm and no one noticed. Andy said nothing. How was this possible? And what does it say about his experience of being cared for? When he was finally taken to hospital four months later, his arm had to be broken again before it could be reset. Andy’s mother would eventually follow him to New York, where she lived in his basement.
And whilst the city’s counterculture and his canny commercialisation of it provided him status and financial security, let’s not underestimate the reality: the closet door was firmly shut for most professional men and being ‘out’ meant being an outlaw. The erotic was relegated to hyper-sexualised liminal spaces such as the piers and baths, and there were nightly police raids on gay bars, culminating in the Stonewall riots of 1969. It would not be until 1973, that homosexuality was removed from the American Psychiatric Association’s list of mental illnesses and teachers could be fired for being gay as late as 1985.
We do know that Andy crossed paths with the world of psychiatry and psychotherapy, something which was explicitly referenced in his art. Sigmund Freud appears in his series Ten Portraits of Jews of the Twentieth Century alongside the philosopher Martin Buber. ‘Who?’ wrote Andy in his diary. He also used Rorschach blots, or ‘things’ as he called them, in another screen print series. But there doesn’t seem to be much interest in the subject matter per se; Andy just knew they would sell well.
In 1966, he was invited, along with The Velvet Underground, to the Psychiatrist’s Convention, a black tie dinner which of course ended in mayhem, much to the delight of the guests who declared, ‘we’re fascinated by the mass communications activities of Warhol and his group.’ And then, in The Philosophy of Andy Warhol, he tells an anecdote about seeing a psychiatrist. Since he was always dealing with his friends problems, Andy thought it would be a good idea to explore his own. He visits a psychiatrist in Greenwich village and spends an hour telling him his life story. The psychiatrist says he will call Andy the next day to book another appointment, but he never does. Andy writes:
‘On the way back from the psychiatrist’s I stopped in Macy’s and out of the blue I bought my first television set. I brought it home to the apartment where I was living alone and right away I forgot all about the psychiatrist. I kept the TV on all the time, especially when people were telling me their problems and the television I found to be just diverting enough so the problems people told me didn’t really affect me any more. I was like some kind of magic.’
Not that his put off Andy from searching out quick fixes. There were plenty of other therapists of the alternative persuasion on speed dial: nutritionists, dermatologists, vitamin injectors and Dr Reese and Dr Bernsohn, his crystal doctors.
By the summer of 1984, Andy had gotten into crystal therapy:
‘Look, I know the people are ridiculous but it’s the crystals I believe in. They do work. When you think that these crystals were in the centre of the earth and have all this energy …'
At times, his obsession with crystals seems to boarder on the absurd:
‘The crystal in the kitchen at the office still isn’t working - it still isn’t repelling the roaches. I’m going to bring it back to Bernsohn again.’
But there is a more poignant reason for his faith in them. This was the mid 1980s, when there was no life saving treatment for HIV and AIDS. At about this time, Andy had started wearing a crystal pendant, a ‘third eye’, to protect him and he writes in this diary that “Jon’s gotten interested in that kind of stuff too.’
Just months earlier, his boyfriend Jon Gould had found out he was HIV positive.
Pat Hackett added this note to the diaries:
‘Jon Gould was admitted to New York hospital with pneumonia on February 4, 1984, and released on February 22. He was readmitted the next day, however, and released again on March 7.
It was a miracle that anyone with HIV/AIDS came out of hospital at this time. On the same day, Andy instructed his housekeepers: ‘From now on, wash Jon's dishes and clothes separate from mine.’
Andy and Jon’s relationship ended in 1985 and on Sunday, September 2, 1986 Andy wrote in his diary:
‘Susan Pile called and said she got the job at Twentieth Century Fox that starts in October, so she’s leaving Paramount. And the Diary can write itself on other news from L.A., which I don’t want to talk about.’
Once again, Pat Hackett adds a note to the diaries: ‘Jon Gould died on September 18th at age thirty-three after ‘an extended illness’. He was down to seventy pounds and he was blind. He denied even to close friends that he had AIDS.’
After this, Andy’s diaries feel increasingly hollow. His focus once again becomes his art, and he throws himself into a new series of work, The Last Supper, a commentary on love and loss, which he completes just before his own death from a botched gall bladder operation in February 1987.
It’s Andy’s relationship with Jon Gould that makes me wonder if he had embarked on psychotherapy in the early 80s. Andy had an avoidant attachment style, no surprise considering his childhood trauma and experience of being othered. This played out in his relationship with Jed Johnson, who eventually called it quits due to Andy’s inability to give himself fully to the relationship. Having lost Jed, Andy realised that something had to change. When he was introduced to Jon in 1980, he wrote in his diary, ‘I should try to fall in love, and that's what I'm doing now with Jon Gould.’
Change happens when people commit to the process of exploring their whole sense of self, including their shadowy parts and the stuff they have unconsciously disowned. When this happens, relationships stand a chance.
Andy has an awareness about himself that I see in people who have done therapy. It could be that he was just getting older, but but it feels more conscious than that. He had decided to do something about his fractured attachment and trauma. It was not enough to go through life repeating old patterns, he wanted a different life for himself and those he loved. He wanted deeper relationships and he wanted to take a risk to be vulnerable with someone.
In her biography Happy Times, Lee Radziwill recalls the Andy of this time, an Andy who was happiest at Eothen, his beach home on Long Island.
‘Here a somewhat different person was on display. He loved children and was inventive with them, creating activities in which they became totally abandoned such as when he sat them down at a large round table in the living room to show them how to edit a film in a simple way … We spent long lazy afternoons on the beach, talking and burying each other in the sand. At times like this, Andy wasn’t as strange as he initially seemed, but revealed himself as a keen, subtle observer of everything around him…”
Andy died when he was just 58-years-old. His short but extraordinary life had defined pop culture and the 20th Century. If he had survived his gall bladder operation what would he have gone on to achieve? In 2013, he would have been 85-years-old. What would he have made of 9/11? The development of antiretroviral treatment for HIV? Nascent Instagram culture?
Of course, he would have continued to shock and surprise. I like to think he would have found love again and that he would have made a difference to the world, in a way that only the creativity of Andy Warhol could imagine.
Shot Sage Blue Marilyn (1964) sold for $195 million at Christie’s New York, May 2022. A record for an American artist at auction.
The Andy Warhold Diaries (2022) Netflix
The Andy Warhol Diaries Edited by Pat Hackett, Penguin.
From A To B And Back Again: The Philosophy of Andy Warhol
Happy Times (2002) Lee Radziwill
Photo of Andy Warhol - Public domain
Sigmund Freud (1980) Portfolio/Series:Ten Portraits of Jews of the Twentieth Century. Copyright:© The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc / Artists Rights Society (ARS). Courtesy of Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, New York
The Last Supper Cycle (1986). http://pastexhibitions.guggenheim.org/warhol/