Beyond amphetamine-fuelled parties and silk screen prints

When David Hockney exhibited iPad drawings at his exhibition at the Royal Academy in 2012, the art world was be- mused. Many were unsure as to what to make of them. Some treated the works as cutting edge artistic practice. What they failed to appreciate, though, was that such art has a surprisingly long history, which has been recently enriched by the discovery of lost computer art by Andy Warhol.

Andy Warhol doesn’t need much introduction. Feted and hated in equal measure, his art is as recognisable as Michelangelo’s and is the quintessential artistic product of the consumerist phase of the Twentieth Century. His “Factory”, a base for the mass production of work and amphetamine-fuelled parties, is now legendary. Seemingly there is little more that could prompt further recognition of his artistic genius.

Then this year it was announced that previously unknown artworks by Warhol had been discovered on a 1985 floppy disc. The reaction was one of uncontained excitement. That the man who was at the cutting edge of technological advancements in art had turned his hand towards the digital sphere was an intriguing prospect.

The Amiga® floppy disks were found in the archives of the Andy Warhol Museum and extracted by members of the Carnegie Mellon University Computer Club in conjunction with numerous experts. The artworks are the result of Warhol’s commission by Commodore International to explore the graphic arts capabilities of an Amiga personal computer. Cory Arcangel, a “Warhol fanatic and lifelong computer nerd”, discovered the existence of this commission from an advert on YouTube. Suspecting that the artist may have produced such artworks he approached the Andy Warhol Museum for permission to comb its archives for evidence to support his theory. His hunch proved correct. This was in 2011.

A painstaking process followed in which Arcangel, with the assistance of various computer experts, slowly succeeded in discovering the images. It was established early on that at- tempting to read the data on the disks could destroy the content. New and delicate methods had to be devised. In 2013 the CMU Computer Club, in collaboration with various other individuals and organisations, had formulated a plan for extracting the data. It worked, and to their delight 28 previously unknown digital images, 11 of which featured Warhol’s signature, were discovered.

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The contents are fascinating. Some of Warhol’s most famous and iconic works are rein- vented in the digital medium. While visually enthralling they are also engaging on a personal level. By the 1980s Warhol was widely regarded as a spent artistic force. His artwork was produced to sell and he was accordingly criticised as a “business artist”. Indeed his justification for an exhibition of ten portraits displayed at the Jewish Museum in New York was “they’re going to sell”. He was thought to be breaking no new ground and was regarded as a curious survivor of the pop art age; a genius whose art had failed to evolve.

These newly discovered images conclusively prove this now-defunct argument to be thoroughly incorrect. They are the work of an artist constantly exploring his own legacy, rein- venting his past and seeking new mediums in which to do so. If one was told to choose the two images which are most readily associated with Warhol, the answer would, most probably, be Marilyn Monroe and a tin of Campbell’s soup.

That he would be willing to reinvent these images with which he is inextricably linked is testament to an artist ever committed to breaking new ground. It shows in the art. While Mon- roe, soup cans and his famous banana – which became synonymous with The Velvet Underground – all feature, there are also doodles, screenshots of a desktop and self portraits.

News of the discovery of new works are often received in a misleading way. A newly discovered Rembrandt sketch, say, might be lauded as his greatest ever artwork simply by virtue of its being new. The reaction to these computer images however has been wholly sincere and illuminating. Matt Wrbicon, the chief archivist at the Warhol Museum, has commented on the fascination of seeing the results of a “mature artist who had spent about 50 years developing a specific hand-to-eye coordination now suddenly grappling with the bizarre new sensation of a mouse in his palm held several inches from the screen”.

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No doubt he resisted the urge to physically touch the screen.

It had to be enormously frustrating, but it also marked a huge transformation in our culture: the dawn of the era of affordable home computing. We can only wonder how he would explore and exploit the technologies that are so ubiquitous today. It is an intriguing thought.