Andy Warhol, Digital Art Pioneer?

It all started with a video on YouTube. Sometime in 2011, artist Cory Arcangel watched a video of Andy Warhol painting a digital portrait of singer Debbie Harry in 1985 on a Commodore Amiga 1000 as part of a promotional event for the computer’s release. What happened to that image and the others Warhol made on that computer nearly 30 years ago?, Arcangel wondered. When Arcangel traveled to Pittsburgh later that year for his upcoming exhibition at the Carnegie Museum of Art, he stopped off at the nearby Andy Warhol Museum and asked that very question of the curators. That YouTube video and Arcangel’s curiosity set off a chain of events that led to the recovery of those long-forgotten images from the depths of the digital archives and the tomb of obsolete technology. Compared to what artists such as Arcangel and others can do with modern computer technology today, Warhol’s images (such as his self-portrait, shown above) seem like quaint cave drawings. But there’s still something to be learned from looking at the first foray into a new medium for an already established artist such as Andy Warhol, who may now be seen perhaps as a digital art pioneer.


The video begins with Warhol and Harry descending a staircase onto a stage upon which the Amiga 1000 has been set up. Warhol and a tuxedoed Commodore representative sit at the computer while Harry poses at a distance. The computer expert guides Warhol through the steps of taking a “digital picture” of Harry and then using the graphic interface to manipulate the image with fills and other effects. As Warhol plays around with the computer, the expert tries to interview him, only to get the typical affectless Andy responses of “Uh, yes” or “Uh, no.” Asked how often he’s worked on a computer, Warhol answers that this is his first time, which is not surprising given Warhol’s age at the time (56; he would die just 2 years later) and the fact that personal computing was still in its infancy in 1985. Looking at Warhol’s awkwardness with the mouse and the now-painfully processing speed of the computer’s graphics will amuse the younger set, but watching Warhol come to grips with this new technology for the first time is an invaluable document comparable to being there in the fields with the Impressionists using the newfangled technology of the paint tube that freed them from the confines of the studio to go out in nature with a new degree of freedom that revolutionized painting itself.

Alas, Andy lived only another 2 years to enjoy this new medium. The Amiga 1000 might look like a dinosaur by today’s standards, but some consider it the first multimedia computer, far ahead of its time even though Commodore itself as a company couldn’t stay far ahead of its competition, lasting just a decade after introducing the Amiga 1000. The images Andy made that day might have disappeared, too, except for the efforts of the Carnegie Mellon University Computer Club and the Frank-Ratchye STUDIO for Creative Inquiry. The student-run Computer Club used their extensive collection of obsolete computer hardware and their prize-winning retro-computing software to recover Warhol’s Amiga 1000 images from the disc languishing in the Warhol Museum’s archives. In addition to the Harry portrait, which had never been lost, the images Warhol created for the commission by Commodore range from simple doodles to riffs on some of his favorite subjects—Marilyn Monroe, Campbell’s Soup, self-portraits, snippets from art history such as Botticelli’s Venus, and the banana he used for the Velvet Underground & Nico’s iconic album cover.

What would Warhol have done with today’s advanced computers? Synonymous with Pop Art in his own day, Warhol today would bask in the way computers permeate our popular culture today and create art that reflected that reality—an iPad triptych, perhaps, to update his Marilyn Triptych the same way that the Marilyn Triptych updated the religious triptychs of centuries before. Warhol would probably see the computer as today’s (false?) idol worshipped above all others, thus continuing the line of social commentary that his earlier work began. It’s the same old story, just with different characters and gods. (If Henry Adams were alive today to write his Education of, he’d be musing not over the Virgin and the Dynamo but the Virgin and the iPhone.) I doubt Warhol would use computers solely for their potential as a medium the way that another canonical artist, David Hockney, does with his iPhone and iPad drawings. For Warhol, the medium was always the better part of the message, with the concept of craft taking a back seat. When Warhol watches the fill effect slowly turn Blondie’s portrait canary yellow in the video, the cool factor clearly outweighs aesthetic considerations.

Digital art today has grown exponentially in its potential along with the potential of computing itself. But if Moore’s Law holds true and computing power doubles approximately every two years, can human creativity itself keep up that pace? Warhol’s not a “pioneer” of digital art in the sense that he created great works of digital art. However, Warhol is a pioneer in the sense that his approach to popular culture and the media it uses to communicate provides a template for us to perhaps keep pace with the computing world that threatens to, as Neil Postman warned back in 1985, the year Warhol doodled on that Amiga 1000, amuse us to death.

[Image: Andy Warhol. Andy2, 1985. ©The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visuals Arts, Inc., courtesy of The Andy Warhol Museum.]

[Many thanks to The Andy Warhol Museum for providing me with the image above and other press materials.]

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The finding goes hand in hand with the "hygiene hypothesis," initially proposed in 1989 by the British scientist David Strachan. He maintained that our generally sterile modern world prevents children from being exposed to certain microorganisms, resulting in compromised immune systems and greater incidences of asthma and allergies.

Contemporary research fine-tuned the hypothesis, finding that not interacting with so-called "old friends" or helpful microbes in the soil and the environment, rather than the ones that cause illnesses, is what's detrimental. In particular, our mental health could be at stake.

"The idea is that as humans have moved away from farms and an agricultural or hunter-gatherer existence into cities, we have lost contact with organisms that served to regulate our immune system and suppress inappropriate inflammation," explained Lowry. "That has put us at higher risk for inflammatory disease and stress-related psychiatric disorders."

University of Colorado Boulder

Christopher Lowry

This is not the first study on the subject from Lowry, who published previous work showing the connection between being exposed to healthy bacteria and mental health. He found that being raised with animals and dust in a rural environment helps children develop more stress-proof immune systems. Such kids were also likely to be less at risk for mental illnesses than people living in the city without pets.

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The new study from Lowry and his team identified why that worked by pinpointing the specific fatty acid responsible. They showed that when the 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid gets into cells, it works like a lock, attaching itself to the peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor (PPAR). This allows it to block a number of key pathways responsible for inflammation. Pre-treating the cells with the acid (or lipid) made them withstand inflammation better.

Lowry thinks this understanding can lead to creating a "stress vaccine" that can be given to people in high-stress jobs, like first responders or soldiers. The vaccine can prevent the psychological effects of stress.

What's more, this friendly bacterium is not the only potentially helpful organism we can find in soil.

"This is just one strain of one species of one type of bacterium that is found in the soil but there are millions of other strains in soils," said Lowry. "We are just beginning to see the tip of the iceberg in terms of identifying the mechanisms through which they have evolved to keep us healthy. It should inspire awe in all of us."

Check out the study published in the journal Psychopharmacology.