Just over a year ago the Andy Warhol Museum announced something the art world couldn’t have anticipated: the recovery of numerous works by the pop-art maestro unseen for nearly 30 years. Of course, discovery or rediscovery of lost masterpieces isn’t at all unusual—it happens frequently enough, more often than not in stranger-than-fiction circumstances, that we should all be trolling flea markets and thrift stores rather than playing the lottery.
But what was unusual in this case was that the lost Warhols were hiding, digitized, in plain site and just out of reach.
It began in 1985, just two years before Warhol died, aged 58, from surgical complications. He’d been commissioned by the Commodore computer corporation, they of the 64-bit, pre-Mac and PC dominance fame, to be a professional sponsor of sorts for the newly launched Amiga desktop system. The Amiga was being marketed as both a home and business computer, but with robust (for the times) music and graphics-processing capabilities, it seemed a natural fit to hype it through the paid-for graces of the reigning king of current cultural aesthetics.
Warhol was a featured guest at the Amiga’s gala launch fête (fun fact: the Amiga was so-named to make it alphabetically antecedent to Apple), during which he created a computer-assisted portrait of Debbie Harry—and this was, he claimed at the time, his first ever hands-on experience with a computer.
The thing was, sponsorship and crass commerce aside, Warhol really did seem to take to the Amiga, and was to continue using his personal Commodore rig for the all-too brief time that was left to him.
Flash forward to 2011—the Warhol museum had been in possession of his personal effects, including now-obsolete Amiga floppy disks, for decades. It had long been suspected the disks’ contents might be historically and artistically important, but since the Amiga formatting protocols were by now completely obscure, it seemed as though whatever was on there was gone forever.
It would take another artist, one with fortuitous contacts in the digerati milieu, to break the code. Cory Arcangel had seen the YouTube video of the Amiga launch, heard about the Warhol Museum’s forlorn disks, and made some calls. Members of the Carnegie Mellon Computer Club would take nearly three years to back-engineer the format and read the contents, but by April of 2014 they’d done it.
Thus for the past year the world has been in possession of Warhol digital artworks that very nearly evaded us. No one would mistake them for his best work—they’re unmistakably low-res, clearly created in the shaky, early days of the medium. They’re also unmistakably Warhol: playful, colorful, topical. Why, there’s even a Campbell’s Soup can.
Whether or not the recovered Warhols are dramatic case histories from an art-preservation point of view, they’re probably indicative of another cultural imperative: We’re a digital society now, and our collective digital memory is all too volatile. Who knows how many works of contemporary art and literature exist in a purely binary medium, and who knows how vulnerable they might be? Who knows, indeed, how many of them are already gone?