The Next Page: Andy Warhol's digital palette

The recovery of nine digital Warhols from an old floppy disk highlighted the challenges of data preservation in the ever-evolving technological age. Historian Sarah Kizina wonders what else the artist's old computer holds.


Share with others:


Print Email Read Later

On Tuesday, July 23, 1985, Commodore-Amiga Inc. introduced a revolutionary piece of computing technology -- the Amiga 1000 personal home computer -- at Lincoln Center in New York. As part of the event, the company arranged for pop artist and Pittsburgh native Andy Warhol to demonstrate the computer's ProPaint program, an advanced piece of software allowing home users to easily and quickly create artwork digitally.

Warhol made his entrance with Blondie front woman Debbie Harry, who strode confidently onto the stage. The silver-haired Warhol, clad in black and sporting a pair of oversized pink glasses, trailed behind. Taking a seat, Ms. Harry patted her hair and asked Warhol in a husky voice, "Are you ready to paint me?"

"Yah," Warhol replied.

Using the Amiga 1000 and the feed from a video camera, Warhol captured a digital photograph of Ms. Harry. Choosing one of the computer's 4,096 colors, Warhol then used the "fill" function to "paint" the portrait, creating large blocks of color reminiscent of his signature portraits.

The whole process was completed in less than a minute.

Later, Warhol described the experience to Pat Hackett, whom he had been paying to transcribe his daily experiences as a way to track expenditures since being audited by the Internal Revenue Service in 1976. Warhol said, "The whole day was spent being nervous and telling myself that if I could just get good at stuff like this, then I could make money that way, and I wouldn't have to paint."

Warhol had little time to explore using his celebrity or the new medium of digital as a means of making money, however. Just 18 months later, he met an untimely death due to complications from gallbladder surgery.

At the Amiga 1000's debut, the master of ceremonies remarked that Warhol's portrait of Ms. Harry was the first of its kind. Warhol, however, had practiced on the machine in preparation for the event.

In May 2011, professional astrologer-turned-art historian Darrelyn Gunzburg had a conversation with friend Don Greenbaum, who had worked for Commodore-Amiga in the 1980s. In an article for Cassone, an international online art magazine, Ms. Gunzburg reported that Mr. Greenbaum had many mementos from his time at Commodore, including a disk labeled "Andy v27."

Mr. Greenbaum told Ms. Gunzburg that he believed it might contain works that he had seen Warhol put on a disk at The Factory, the artist's New York studio, in the weeks leading up to the Amiga 1000 premiere. Locked inside could be important finds to art history, proof that Warhol had explored a medium that, if not for his untimely death, could have become his chosen one.

One thing stood in Mr. Greenbaum's way, however: 26 years of computing evolution.

A painstaking recovery

Since Warhol last turned on his Amiga, people had become much more reliant on digital information. Lives had gone digital with blogs, tweets, posts, emails, photos and movies. But data loss occurred during these evolutionary leaps in computing technology. In some cases, the means of preservation were lacking. In others, the knowledge and means were available but not employed. While mountains of outdated electronics filled landfills, some fetishists adhered to old technology out of nostalgia or reverence.

As anyone who has lost digital family photographs or tried and failed to set up and play an old Atari can attest, many problems plague the longevity of digital data. These problems go beyond the fact that old computing technology gets glitchy or that files saved on an aging medium become corrupted. There are also issues with playback, i.e., whether a modern device can read outmoded media.

Locating a functional contemporary device so that old media can be migrated -- say, finding a Betamax machine so an old family video can be transferred to an MPEG file and uploaded to YouTube -- remains an issue. Even then, no piece of digital data can be preserved with a single migration. It must be migrated repeatedly to keep pace with evolving technology.

Before Mr. Greenbaum could access his "Andy v27" floppy, he needed to find an Amiga computer. Contemporary computers aren't outfitted to read floppy disks. But that wasn't the only challenge. Floppies generally have a lifespan of three to five years, after which the encoded information begins to deteriorate, resulting in an unreadable, corrupted disk. Any images on Mr. Greenbaum's disk already could have been beyond salvage.

Fortunately for Mr. Greenbaum, Amiga had developed a strong following, and he was able to source a working, vintage Amiga 1000 off eBay. Ms. Gunzburg wrote that when Mr. Greenbaum attempted to access the disk through the Amiga's Paint Deluxe program, he could see that there were files, but that when he attempted to open them, the computer crashed.

Through online Amiga forums, Mr. Greenbaum found Alessandro Barteletti, an Italian digital photographer, who informed him that the "Andy v27" disc contained ProPaint, an earlier iteration of the Paint Deluxe on Mr. Greenbaum's Amiga. To open the disk, Mr. Greenbaum had to load 1985 firmware onto his computer.

Files since have become more standardized with the TIFF and PDF formats, and these are the preferred archival formats used by museums for images and text. In the future, these files should be readable with modern equipment, as long as software has been continuously updated and the files migrated to new storage media to minimize corruption.

Like the archivist or librarian who ensures books and documents are kept in optimal environments, and in the process inspects storage containers and repairs or conserves deteriorating material, so the digital archivist must transfer digital information to new and current media. Groups dealing with digital preservation have made strides since identifying these issues more than 20 years ago, but the battle against digital decay is far from over.

Amazingly for Mr. Greenbaum, not only was Mr. Barteletti able to find the original 1985 firmware, but when the files were opened, everything was there: nine signed, digital works by Warhol.

Discovering a larger digital portfolio

These nine works may not have been Warhol's first digital pieces. It has been rumored that Warhol worked in another digital medium -- film. It is true that Warhol worked during the 1980s for MTV; it was the video era, after all. But this film would have been different. It would have been created entirely on the Amiga hard drive, a first in artistic digital film.

In 2006, a press release from the Museum of New Art in Detroit announced a one-time screening of a "lost" Warhol film, an 8-second production, complete with audio, created entirely on the Amiga. Credited with the discovery were Ernie Friedhoff and a team from ITN Group. They reportedly found disks with Warhol's familiar scrawl and the words, "I am the One." Mr. Friedhoff said it took four years to retrofit a Macintosh computer with emulation software that eventually led to recovery of the work.

Both Pittsburgh's Andy Warhol Museum, which controls the rights to Warhol's films, and the New York-based Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, which controls all other Warhol rights, say they are unfamiliar with the film. Whether the Detroit museum actually followed through with the screening is unclear. Curators at MONA have yet to answer my inquiries, which I first made while working on a thesis project on digital preservation last year.

No one will know just how much Warhol explored digital art on the Amiga until someone examines the computer. The Warhol Museum is in possession of Warhol's Amiga and related objects, and due to recent interest in the material from this author and Mr. Greenbaum, head archivist Matt Wrbican says that the Warhol has been cataloging the material into its database over the past year. The materials previously had been held in storage, waiting to become part of the collection. Mr. Wrbican says that the museum is now working on a multiparty project with the materials but that he cannot share the details. More is to be revealed in a not-yet-scheduled announcement. Mr. Wrbican says the news is very exciting.

In the meantime, why haven't we seen the works recovered by Mr. Greenbaum?

Commodore-Amiga hired Warhol to promote the system. He appeared at the premiere and received a computer in return. The contract is missing, but it's believed to be tucked into one of Warhol's numerous files now housed in the museum archives. With the contract missing and Commodore-Amiga disbanded since the mid-1990s, it's unclear who owns the reproduction rights and whether the art can be published.

The copyright on Warhol's images, if held by Commodore-Amiga, will run out in another 75 years. By that time, his Amiga will be 100 years old.

One copy of Warhol's Debbie Harry portrait is on public view at the museum. It's a facsimile of a photo of the Amiga's screen, displayed in a glass case at the top of a second-floor stairwell.

opinion_commentary - artarchitecture

McDonald resident Sarah Kizina has a bachelor's degree in studio arts from the University of Pittsburgh and a master's in museum studies from the Harvard University Extension School. Her master's thesis examined digital art and photography preservation and collection policies in museums. This summer, she will work as an interpreter at Meadowcroft Musem of Rural Life near Avella (skizina@mail.com).


Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

You have 2 remaining free articles this month

Try unlimited digital access

If you are an existing subscriber,
link your account for free access. Start here

You’ve reached the limit of free articles this month.

To continue unlimited reading

If you are an existing subscriber,
link your account for free access. Start here