New Warhol works revealed via forensic retro-computing
Imagine finding a notebook from Dr. Jonas Salk's early research on polio in the back of a drawer. Or the first draft of Michael Chabon's “The Mysteries of Pittsburgh” in a long-locked cabinet.
Members of the Carnegie Mellon University Computer Club and its Frank-Ratchye Studio for Creative Inquiry recently made a similar discovery when they extracted 28 images of Andy Warhol's early experiments with computer-generated art that had been trapped on Amiga floppy disks since 1985.
Despite the artist's death in 1987, Warhol continues to surprise and delight a growing audience.
“This was probably the most technically sophisticated and materially significant forensic retro-computing effort ever conducted in the arts,” said Golan Levin, professor of electronic art at Carnegie Mellon University and director of the university's Frank-Ratchye Studio for Creative Inquiry.
”The data is only 30 years old,” Levin said. “But it's very old for digital art.”
The images found on the disks vary from doodles and camera shots of a desktop, to experiments with some of Warhol's best-known subjects — Campbell's soup cans, Botticelli's Venus and a self-portrait — that he altered and overlaid with computer-generated pattern flood fills, palletized color and copy-paste collage.
One artwork resulted from the series — a portrait of Debbie Harry that is part of The Andy Warhol Museum's collection.
But the value of the discovery is not in the images themselves. It is in the window it offers into Warhol's experiments with a new medium for art, said Matt Wribican, chief archivist for The Andy Warhol Museum.
“What's interesting is that it puts us back into that time of the mid-'80s,” Wribican said. “We get to see Warhol struggling. He had been working for half a century using his hand and a brush or pencil and seeing results directly.”
Creating images on a computer screen offered new tools and new challenges, Wribican said. While the computer gave artists access to an infinite number of colors, manipulating the paint bucket tool could be an exercise in frustration.
“You can see him struggling and being disappointed,” Wribican said.
Warhol's Amiga computer and the disks had been part of The Warhol's collection since 1994. A letter in the museum's collection appears to be a contract between Warhol and Commodore International that commissioned Warhol to experiment with an Amiga to demonstrate the computer's graphic arts capabilities.
When the project began to retrieve the data, no one knew if the computer disks contained images or documents created by Warhol, or simply the software needed to run the program.
It took collaboration between The Warhol, Carnegie Mellon University Computer Club, the University's Studio for Creative Inquiry and artist Cory Arcangel to discover what the disks contained.
Arcangel began the project in 2011 when he learned of Warhol's experiments on the Amiga from a YouTube clip that showed Warhol promoting the release of the Amiga 1000 in 1985.
Arcangel approached the museum with a proposal to restore the Amiga hardware and catalogue any files on its diskettes.
But museum staff had concerns about potential for damage to the aging computer or the fragile disks.
It wasn't until April 2012, when Arcangel and Carnegie Museum of Art curator Tina Kukielski sought guidance from Levin.
Levin offered a grant to support the proposed investigation and connected Arcangel with the Computer Club, a student organization that had gained a good reputation for its expertise in the restoration of vintage computers.
Excitement soared when they first saw the disks file names, said Keith Bare, a 2008 Carnegie Mellon University graduate who worked on the project after graduation.
“The first one was ‘Campbells.pic,' ” Bare said. “We were very excited, but we were pretty concerned about the (files) being in an unknown format.”
After acquiring a Kryo-Klux floppy controller that helped them export, translate and rewrite the files into a usable format, they eventually harvested 28 never-before-seen digital images that experts judged to be in Warhol's style. At least 11 of the images bear Warhol's signature.
The forensic retro-computing skills like those used to retrieve Warhol's early digital experimentation are likely to become a familiar tool for biographers and historians, said Liora Farkovitz, a digital forensics author who lives in New York City.
The information on a playwright's discarded hard drive or even phone numbers and text messages on an artist's cellphone can offer insights into the thoughts, acquaintances and activities of an artist.
“It's just a matter of how to get onto these devices with a single computer,” Farkovitz said. “I would imagine information on how an artist did work is going to become more accessible,”
The Warhol Museum has no immediate plans to display the newly recovered images, Wribican said.
But the team's efforts are documented in the Hillman Photography Initiative's new short film, “Trapped: Andy Warhol's Amiga Experiments,” which will premiere at 7 p.m. May 10 in the Carnegie Library Lecture Hall in Pittsburgh. A conversation with team members will follow the screening. Beginning on May 12, the documentary can be viewed at nowseethis.org.
Alice T. Carter is the theater critic for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7808 or firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @ATCarter_Trib
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