Andy Warhol's Palette the Recovery of Nine Digital Warhols from an Old Floppy Disk Highlighted the Challenges of Data Preservation in the Ever-Evolving Technological Age. While Those Works May Be Important Finds, Historian Sarah Kizina Wonders Whether the Artist's Old Computer Holds Additional Surprises

By Kizina, Sarah | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA), April 14, 2013 | Go to article overview

Andy Warhol's Palette the Recovery of Nine Digital Warhols from an Old Floppy Disk Highlighted the Challenges of Data Preservation in the Ever-Evolving Technological Age. While Those Works May Be Important Finds, Historian Sarah Kizina Wonders Whether the Artist's Old Computer Holds Additional Surprises


Kizina, Sarah, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)


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. …

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Andy Warhol's Palette the Recovery of Nine Digital Warhols from an Old Floppy Disk Highlighted the Challenges of Data Preservation in the Ever-Evolving Technological Age. While Those Works May Be Important Finds, Historian Sarah Kizina Wonders Whether the Artist's Old Computer Holds Additional Surprises
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