CMU Computer Club discovers new works of Warhol art

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They aren't exactly the Monuments Men, and it wasn't art stolen by the Nazis.

But the technological sleuthing it took for a group of Carnegie Mellon University students and alumni to recover and preserve some digital images apparently created and stored by artist Andy Warhol on old school floppy computer disks nearly 30 years ago is a tale worth telling.

The Andy Warhol Museum, CMU and the Carnegie Museum of Art -- which all had a hand in the project -- revealed the story Thursday in three news releases that included some of the images.

Andy Warhol paints Debbie Harry on computer

Andy Warhol uses a Commodore computer to paint Debbie Harry.

Those three images of an altered Botticelli's "Venus," a Warhol self-portrait, and a Campbell's soup can -- of 28 total found on the disks -- were enough to excite Warhol fanatics around the world over the possibility that something -- anything -- new by the King of Pop Art had been revealed.

They were created on Warhol's own Commodore Amiga computer in 1985 and included versions of some of his other most iconic images such as a banana and Marilyn Monroe, neither of which have been released yet, and may never be.

While the historic value will take more research and debate to be figured out, Matt Wrbican, the museum's chief archivist, said the interest is understandable for one of the world's most prolific and studied artists, who was born in Pittsburgh and graduated in 1949 from Carnegie Institute of Technology, which became CMU.

"It's something that's new," he said, "and that doesn't happen very often with Warhol."

And, like the discovery of a missing, old world masterpiece, within hours of the Warhol discovery hitting the Internet and going around the world, Mr. Wrbican heard from someone who does not believe that Warhol himself created the images the computer sleuths found.

A man who worked with the now-defunct Amiga World magazine -- which did a story in January 1986 about Warhol and his use of the Amiga computer -- called after reading a story about the discovery Thursday and said he "doesn't think Warhol actually made a lot of those images," Mr. Wrbican said.

Mr. Wrbican said he will talk more with the person who called -- he could not recall his name -- and "we'll discuss it with him."

But if the images were not solely created by Warhol -- who died in 1987 -- on the computer, it would not necessarily affect their historic value in helping to further understand him.

"Like a lot of his work, it was a collaboration," he said.

Still, he said, even if Warhol had created the images all by himself, he noted: "I want to emphasize we're not calling these art work. It was just Warhol learning a new tool."

The museum knew it had Warhol's Amiga computer and floppy disks for some time, Mr. Wrbican said, and accessing it "was something I'd wanted to do for awhile, but there are only so many hours in a day."

It took a modern day, multi-media artist -- and self professed Warhol fanatic -- to finally get the ball rolling.

New York City-based artist Cory Arcangel was about to do a show at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh in August 2011 when his show curator, Tina Kukielski, asked him if he had any ideas for any Pittsburgh-focused work. (The art museum also produced a documentary about the project to access the Warhol images, which will premiere in Pittsburgh on May 10.)

One of the ideas Mr. Arcangel proposed was based on a video he found on YouTube of Warhol "painting" rock artist Debbie Harry on an Amiga computer in 1985 on stage at Lincoln Center in New York.

It was a slick advertising vehicle for Commodore to promote launch of the Amiga, the first advanced multimedia art graphics computer. But it also put an Amiga in Warhol's hands.

"It was always unclear to me if [Warhol] had an Amiga and if he had any disks with work on them," Mr. Arcangel said. "So, when I came to Pittsburgh, Tina got me to together with Matt and he said, 'Well, yeah we do.' "

Mr. Arcangel then called his friend and CMU associate professor Golan Levin to see if he knew anyone with any retro-computer expertise.

As it turns out, CMU had an active and energetic Computer Club that has long been interested in issues surrounding outdated computer technology -- not only for the historic value of learning how computer technology evolved, but as a way to confront future archiving issues.

"We were not optimistic when we first saw the floppy disks," said Keith Bare, a 2008 CMU masters graduate who lives in the North Hills. "They were system disks, not personal copy disks with something hand-written on them like 'Andy Warhol's images' on them."

It turned out the disks, as well as the computer they were created on, were beta versions of both, which made accessing the systems that much more difficult. But using a self-created program, and a program called a KryoFlux to allow a modern computer to interface with a floppy disk, they managed to pull the images up and save them in March 2013.

The issues the team from the club had to overcome with Warhol's old floppy discs "seem archaic," said Michael Dille, a CMU doctoral graduate in 2013 who lives now in Sunnyvale, Calif., but was deeply involved in the Warhol project with the team last year.

"But I think we're going to have a lot of this in the future unless we start saving files in very standard file formats," he said, not just for famous artists, but individuals, business, government and other organizations that need archives that are still on archaic formats.

While it might be easy to think that new computer images by Warhol could quickly be turned into revenue for the museum, Mr. Wrbican said even if Warhol did create them, it's not so easy to begin printing Warhol's newly found work.

The Marilyn Monroe image found on the computer, for example, he said, "we might not want to even release it because the people who control Monroe's image are very vigilant" and might sue the museum if it did.

Copyright issues plague much of his work because of the way he used publicly available images or products.

Moreover, Mr. Wrbican said: "We don't really see them as Warhol's artwork, so I don't think we're going to be putting them out there on coffee cups to sell any time soon."

Sean D. Hamill: or 412-263-2579. First Published April 24, 2014 12:13 PM

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