Andy Warhol: Groundbreaking 1985 Digital Computer Art Experiments Discovered
A number of floppy disks containing digital drawings created by the Pop artist Andy Warhol has been uncovered in the Warhol archives. Towards the end of his life, Warhol saved files of digital information which was trapped on Amiga floppy disks. The Warhol’s archives collection extracted with the help of members of the Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) Computer Club and its Frank-Ratchye STUDIO for Creative Inquiry in a complex recovery process. The Hillman Photography Initiative at Carnegie Museum of Art (CMOA) initiated and then documented this process for its The Invisible Photograph series.
Warhol’s Amiga experiments were the result of a commission by Commodore International to demonstrate the computer’s graphic arts capabilities. They vary from doodles and camera shots of a desktop, to experimenting with Warhol’s classic images of a banana, Marilyn Monroe, Campbell’s soup, and portraits. One artwork resulted from the series, a portrait of Debbie Harry. This artwork is in The Warhol’s collection, but the other images on the disks had been inaccessible due to their obsolete format, since entering the collection in 1994. Also within the museum’s collection is a letter with numerous handwritten amendments by Warhol’s business manager Fred Hughes, which seems to have served as the contract between Warhol and Commodore International.
The impetus for the extraction project came when artist Cory Arcangel learned of Warhol's Amiga work from a YouTube clip showing Warhol promoting the release of the Amiga 1000 in 1985. During Arcangel’s November 2011 visit to Pittsburgh for his exhibition Masters, at Carnegie Museum of Art, he followed up on this topic with curator Tina Kukielski. Kukielski, who was also a co-curator of the 2013 Carnegie International, subsequently joined the Hillman Photography Initiative at CMOA. Kukielski and Arcangel reached out to CMU’s Frank-Ratchye STUDIO for Creative Inquiry, run by Golan Levin, who connected them both to the CMU Computer Club, which is a student organization known for their comprehensive collection of obsolete computer hardware, as well as their prize-winning retro- computing software development.
In 2011, Matt Wrbican, chief archivist at The Warhol, was approached by Arcangel and Kukielski to discuss the possibility of searching for files on the disks which he first saw in Warhol’s former New York City studio in 1991. Having himself been an Amiga user, he shared their enthusiasm for the hunt for images. The project was developed in collaboration with staff at The Warhol including Wrbican, Amber Morgan (collection manager), Nicholas Chambers (Milton Fine curator of art), Greg Burchard (senior manager of photography rights and reproductions), and Eric Shiner (director). The team gathered first in March 2013 to read the disks. A video crew from CMOA closely followed the progress, which has now formed a full episode of its five-part documentary, The Invisible Photograph, which investigates the world of photography by way of hidden, inaccessible, or difficult to access images.
Wrbican states, “The Amiga hardware and Warhol’s experiments with it are one small portion of his extraordinary archives, nearly all of which was gifted to the museum from The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. In the images, we see a mature artist who had spent about 50 years developing a specific hand-to- eye coordination now suddenly grappling with the bizarre new sensation of a mouse in his palm held several inches from the screen. No doubt he resisted the urge to physically touch the screen – it had to be enormously frustrating, but it also marked a huge transformation in our culture: the dawn of the era of affordable home computing. We can only wonder how he would explore and exploit the technologies that are so ubiquitous today.”
Amber Morgan adds, “One of our responsibilities is to preserve the museum’s collection. Up until now, we have only been able to address the computer disks themselves, and not the content held within them. This project has enabled us to safely extract the data, which can now be properly backed up, ensuring that the images will be preserved even if the original disks fail.” The Warhol’s Director Eric Shiner said, “Warhol saw no limits to his art practice. These computer generated images underscore his spirit of experimentation and his willingness to embrace new media – qualities which, in many ways, defined his practice from the early 1960s onwards.”
For more information about The Invisible Photograph, a production of the Hillman Photography Initiative, and a project of CMOA, please visit www.nowseethis.org.