Andy Warhol, Andy2, 1985, ©The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visuals Arts, Inc., courtesy of The Andy Warhol Museum
Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) and The Andy Warhol Museum announced today a landmark discovery: more than two dozen never-before-seen digital artworks by Andy Warhol.
The works, featuring some of Warhol’s most iconic subjects – Marilyn Monroe, Campbell’s Soup, Botticelli’s Venus – were saved, or more accurately “trapped,” on Amiga Floppy disks from the 1980s, archaic by digital standards and incompatible with any still-existing technology. Yes, computer scientists at CMU, at great risk to the images, had to actually reverse-engineer a program to open the files.
The discovery is the product of some two years of work by a team of computer scientists, art historians, and artists from the AWM, the Frank-Ratchye STUDIO for Creative Inquiry, the CMU Computer Club, and the Hillman Photography Initiative at the Carnegie Museum of Art, who documented the team’s research.
The floppy disks had been in the archives of the AWM for some 30 years, but no one knew what was on them or how to open them. It wasn’t until New York-based Artist Cory Arcangel had the hunch that Warhol may have saved artwork on the disks that they began probing into their contents.
Andy Warhol, Campbell's, 1985, ©The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visuals Arts, Inc., courtesy of The Andy Warhol Museum
Arcangel, long-time computer nerd and Warhol fan (you may know him for his video game hacks, most notably the Hogan’s Alley hack, in which he replaced shooting targets with Warhol’s face), got the idea after watching a YouTube video of a Commodore Amiga product launch from 1985, showing Warhol creating a portrait of Debbie Harris using the then-new and innovative digital imaging software. If you haven’t heard of Commodore, it’s because they haven’t existed since the late 80s, when the market was taken over by IBM and Apple Macintosh. But back in the 80s they boasted offering “computing for the masses, not the classes” and were competing for a share of the emerging market for personal computer.
It was during this time that Warhol created the newly re-surfaced pieces saved under such names as ‘marilyn1.pic’ and ‘campbells.pic.’ Highly pixilated and unrefined, the pieces are delightfully primitive by current digital standards. Warhol created the pieces using tools like pattern flood fills, palletized color, and copy-paste collage. As one of the first explorations into what the new technology could do, however, Arcangel says Warhol was exceptional.
“What’s amazing is that by looking at these images, we can see how quickly Warhol seemed to intuit the essence of what it meant to express oneself, in what then was a brand-new medium: the digital,” Arcangel said in a press release issued today.
After seeing the video of Warhol working on a Commodore Amiga, Arcangel approached AWM with Carnegie Museum of Art Curator Tina Kukielski to see if they were interested in trying to restore the Amiga hardware.
That was back in December 2011. Over the next six months they assembled their team, won a grant to support the project, and got to work.
Andy Warhol, Venus, 1985, ©The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visuals Arts, Inc., courtesy of The Andy Warhol Museum
Early on the CMU Computer club found that evening trying to read the data posed significant risks of damaging or losing whatever was stored on the disks, and no one knew what they would find. It was a gamble, but they decided to move forward.
When they scanned the disks they found files like ‘marilyn1.pic’ and ‘campbells.pic.’ Then came the next hurdle. They didn’t have any software that recognized the file formats, so they couldn’t open them. CMU Computer Club then reverse-engineered a program to open the files (you can read their detailed report of exactly how they did it here.) What they found: 28 forgotten digital artworks, authenticated by AWM’s experts to be in his style. 11 of them feature Warhol’s signature.
For those in the Pittsburgh area, he Hillman Photography Initiative will be debuting their short film “ Trapped: Andy Warhol’s Amiga Experiments,” documenting the team’s efforts next month at the Carnegie Library Lecture Hall. Everyone else will have to wait until May 12, when the film will be released online at nowseethis.org.
Commodore Amiga computer equipment used by Andy Warhol 1985-86, courtesy of The Andy Warhol Museum