Pop Culture

An Internet of Things: Andy Warhol’s Digital Art

The recent discovery of never-before-seen Andy Warhol digital works has, if not rocked, at least sent a minor tremor through the art world. In all, 28 images were found, and if the three that have already been released to the public are any indication, the rest are looking to be a mixed bag of artistic merit. The images had been locked away on 80s-vintage computer disks ever since they entered the Andy Warhol Museum’s collection in Pittsburgh in 1994. It was only after Brooklyn artist Cory Arcangel watched a 1985 video of Warhol use a computer to make a portrait of Blondie singer Deborah Harry that the recovery process even began.

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The fact that the Warhol Museum hadn’t in 20 years been able to find a way to access the old disks raises the question of how motivated they were to do so. While the technical challenges may have been significant, they hardly seem insurmountable, given the fact that the group who did finally unlock the files was a university computer club, albeit a highly skilled one at Carnegie Mellon University.

The three newly released images are certainly a product of their time, and look like something an eight-year-old with an iPad paint program could do today. They are located in that specific cultural space typical of Warhol’s work, halfway between an advertising campaign and high art. The project stemmed from a 1985 commission Warhol received from computer manufacturer Commodore International. Few remember the company now, but at the time they were selling a cutting-edge graphics program and gave Warhol the computers as part of their marketing efforts. It’s unclear to what extent Warhol was compensated for cooperating with the company. He surely had commercial concerns in mind while making the work, not only artistic ones.

The aforementioned portrait of Debbie Harry has long been on display at the Warhol Museum, and the video of the creation of that piece, which was recorded as part of the product launch press conference for Amiga, has been available online for at least several years.In the video Warhol, looking very much like an elderly and eccentric professor, with vividly grey hair and pink-framed glasses, comes on-stage with Harry, who, vamping heavily, slinks into a chair and demurs, “Are you ready to paint me?” Warhol answers in the affirmative, and an on-stage presenter makes the dubiously grandiose claim that this will be the first “computer portrait” that he had ever made on the Amiga computer. After he was done, the presenter asked Warhol if he had ever created art on any other computers before this one, to which Warhol diplomatically replied that he hadn’t worked on any other computer because he was waiting for the Amiga to come out. He apparently was, in addition to his talents as an artist, one hell of a corporate spokesman.

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One way to look at Warhol’s oeuvre would be to say that his images became visual icons that reflected the dissipated American culture at that time, a culture that created advertisements like the Marlboro Man and countless numbers of other morally dubious campaigns. Early on, he didn’t make much of an effort to elevate his art beyond the mass produced media that filled his environment. One possible reason for this is because in addition to Warhol the artist, there was Warhol the businessman, a person who didn’t look askance at the money and fame his work brought him.

He didn’t try to shy away from that aspect of himself. He called his Manhattan studio “The Factory” and hired assistants and employees to mass-produce his paintings assembly-line style. He was not involved in the production of his pieces either physically or, seemingly, emotionally, an ironic stance that became popular later in the century during post-modernism. In addition to being a place of business, The Factory was also a social milieu, a hangout for the beautiful and often doped-up hipsters that were always coming by, whether for a photo shoot, movie scene, or a party.

The Warhol museum has judged that the images fit their namesake’s style. However, that determination still leaves open the possibility that they were created not by the artist himself, but by his notoriously innumerable assistants. The three new images released are “Andy2,” a Warhol portrait, “Campbell’s,” a drawing of a Campbell Soup can that looks like it was done using a mouse, and “Venus, 1985,” a modified version of Botticelli’s painting, “The Birth of Venus,” which dates from 1485. None are particularly impressive, which shouldn’t be surprising given the limitations of the technology.

Like the Harry portrait, “Andy2” starts with a digital photo, this one of Warhol holding his head in his hand in a pose reminiscent of Rodin’s “The Thinker.” Only the front of his face, which is seen in three-quarter view and tinted a shade of lemon-lime, is visible, the rest of his head and body obscured by patterned fills created in the software. His expression is melancholy and also reveals a kind of quaalude-like serenity. The overall effect contrasts with his public persona, which is better reflected in his 1986 self-portrait series, where he stares confrontationally at the viewer. The new image captures a lesser-seen side of Warhol, and does so despite the technological limitations and primitive editing.

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“Campbell’s” and “Venus, 1985,” by contrast, are of significantly lesser quality. The Venus is a cut-and-paste job and “Campbell’s” is just a straightforward reworking of his earlier soup can works, more a demonstration of the software than any kind of deeper investigation into their meaning. It makes sense given the context of the works’ creation that this would be the case, and likely they were simply the forgotten by-products of the Amiga advertising campaign. To be fair to Warhol, he was in the later stages of his career and it’s doubtful he had much interest in reinventing his tried-and-true production process. But the fact that he even agreed to lend his name to Amiga for promotional purposes surely hurts his reputation as a serious artist, and may be a reason why the works are only just now being released.

In January 1986, Warhol gave an interview with Amiga World Magazine that gives some clues to the way he might have thought about the new digital medium. In the article, the interviewer asked him whether would he sell prints of the new pieces or distribute the files themselves. Warhol responded by saying that once print technology improved, he could just print out the images and sell them in editions like any other print. When the interviewer made a distinction between digital and print media, noting that exact copies of the digital images could be made infinitely, Warhol missed the point and said that prints are duplicates as well and that he could make as many copies as he wanted. Granted, it was 1986, a decade before the Internet became broadly known to the public, but there seemed to be a strange lack of understanding or curiosity on Warhol’s part about the new medium.

A documentary about the process of recovering the files will premiere in Pittsburgh on May 10th, with the video being available online on May 12th at nowseethis.org. Though it may provide insight into the restoration effort, it will likely not shed any light on whether the new works were created by Warhol or his assistants. But in the final analysis, it may not matter. During his life, Warhol seemed ambivalent on the subject of authenticity and comfortable with a highly collaborative creative process. In that way, he was perfectly suited to the nascent digital culture that was beginning to emerge, with its open source ethos and sharing culture. And for that reason, the new pieces may end up being some of the most genuine Warhol works of all.

Ian Edwards is a writer living near San Francisco. He tweets at @ian_edw.