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On three occasions I have been privileged to interview people who have been involved with revealing major lost or unknown art works. In 2007 I interviewed Michael Liversidge on his identification of two ‘lost’ Fra Angelico paintings. These panels had been missing from the San Marco altarpiece (c.1438–40) since the Napoleonic occupation of Florence at the end of the 18th century. This interview was published in The Art Book in June 2007 and I felt fortunate and exhilarated to have met an art historian who was so intimately connected with a unique event. Then in December 2010 David Glasser, co-chairman of Ben Uri, London Jewish Museum of Art, stumbled upon an unknown sketch by Marc Chagall entitled Apocalypse in Lilac: Capriccio in the catalogue of leading French auction house Tajan and purchased it for Ben Uri. Again, I was the person who interviewed him about this. When a third such opportunity occurred I began to feel as if I were a magnet for people connected with recovering art works. This article is the story of that third event.
In May 2011 my partner and I were staying with our friends Don and Dorian Greenbaum in Massachusetts. I was waxing lyrical about an interview I had just completed with Elliot Davis at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts. Don looked at me, plainly struck by a sudden thought: ‘Are you interested in a story on Andy Warhol's original digital art?’
In 1985, Don Greenbaum was the chief financial officer for Commodore International, in New York. Don shared an office in the Seagram Building with the chairman, Irving Gould. Commodore acquired the Amiga computer in 1984 and spent $27 million on completing both hardware and software design. By the spring of 1985 the Amiga 1000 was way ahead of anything available on the market. It boasted video of 4096 possible colours, 8-bit stereo sound, 256K of memory and a graphic interface of 248 colours, all of which was revolutionary. The IBM PC still operated in black and white. Also, the Amiga could handle Paint programs with which neither the Apple, nor the PC, nor even the Commodore 64, could compete. More importantly, the colours and memory allowed for the development of highly sophisticated (for the time) graphic processing. It was clear this was a machine that could be important to artists.
Stephen Greenberg handled Commodore’s public relations. When the official launch was being planned he wanted a Pop artist to introduce the Amiga to the art community. Greenberg knew Andy Warhol personally and Andy was highly receptive to the idea. On 14 June 1985, Andy went to the Seagram Building and Don gave him a demo of the machine and the drawing software. As Don says, ‘Andy was captivated with this new medium and spent a lot more time with us than he planned’. So Commodore hired him to produce some art for the planned July launch and appear at the launch.
They outfitted Andy’s 33rd Street studio with a prototype Amiga. As the machine wasn’t yet on the market, it came with pre-production software: a pre-release version of an art program called Pro Paint. Don was the only employee in New York proficient with the Amiga and so Irving Gould asked him to work with Andy. Don visited Andy’s studio several times, and worked with him when issues arose. Andy was enthralled with the machine and quickly set out to learn the software and master the mouse – at the time a little-used device.
Don remembers it all vividly. ‘He was in his own world. You could talk to him but you could see that behind the eyes the mind was always thinking way ahead of you, focusing on what he could do with the machine rather than what you were telling him. His first attempt at a signature was what you expect an adolescent to scrawl with a crayon. Within a day he was signing his iconic signature. What was interesting was that this was a man who didn’t use a computer, but once he clicked on Autofill or on one of the drawing tools, he never forgot it. I’d go back a week later and he’d be doing stuff as if he’d taken a tutorial on every single thing the software did, and a couple of times he said “It would be neat if you could do this or you could do this or you could do that”.’
On 15 July 1985 Island Graphics (developers of the Paint program) rushed over a new version of Graphic Craft, fixing bugs that were hindering Andy’s progress. Don called on Andy to deliver it and see how he was faring (the launch was now only week away). There on the Amiga computer screen were images of Marilyn Monroe, self-portraits, lilies, a dollar sign, even a Campbell’s soup can. Andy had played around with all his iconic ‘calling cards’ and all were expressed in this mint-new computer graphics medium. Andy had Don copy nine of them onto a floppy disk for delivery to Commodore’s marketing arm, which was preparing the launch material. The highly excited advertising executives wanted Andy to do a live computer portrait at the launch. Andy, also enthusiastic about this new medium, wholeheartedly agreed. The launch was held at Lincoln Center on 23 July 1985, and you can still see Andy’s Amiga launch portrait of Debbie Harry on YouTube.
‘He was an innovator’ says Don, ‘a revolutionary and who knows, if he hadn’t died, that could have been his medium of choice. I remember when we first set up the camera to do photo capture, he looked at it and he looked at the image from the camera going right into a computer and you could just see the wheels turning.
‘Watch him in the YouTube video staring intently at the screen when he’s taking a picture of Debbie Harry. The whole medium of digital photography was perfect for what Andy did. He’d go to shoots and take Polaroid images and then turn them into art by painting over them. Now he could just take a video camera still shot and draw on it, and that was a perfect Andy Warhol type of medium because so much of his work was portraits.’
A little over 18 months later Andy was dead.
But what happened to those first Andy Warhol digital art images that he produced when he was learning to use the Amiga?
Searching his office, which is full of Commodore mementos from the 1980s, Don had already found a box of Commodore floppies, including a disk labelled ‘Andy v27’ prior to my visit. Looking at it, the time that he spent with Andy and the launch of the Amiga 1000 came back to him vividly: ‘I remember looking at this disc and thinking [pause]… “Wow! Could this be the Andy Warhol pictures?” ’
It had been years since he had thrown out his own Amiga 1000. Within days of my visit, Don found an original Amiga1000 on eBay along with disks of the software, Deluxe Paint, the paint program marketed for the Amiga. In anticipation he loaded the disk. To his delight, the files were all there. To his chagrin, the files would not open. He remembered that the program used on the first Amiga operating system (and visible in the YouTube video when Andy created the Debbie Harry portrait) was Pro Paint.
Determined not to be defeated by ancient technology, Don joined several Amiga forums, made enquiries and procured various releases of Pro Paint. All the programs did, when attempting to open the pictures, was to reboot the Amiga. ‘Perhaps’, thought Don, ‘the files are just too corrupted after 20 years of being on the floppy’. But Don is not a man who gives up easily. He tried any paint program he could find. Nothing. Don returned to the Amiga user groups, quizzing them about the file’s structure. The replies came back: that file structure was from the pre-release version of Pro Paint — and nobody owns this program now.
Don looked at the growing pile of floppies and emails. Everywhere he turned doors were closing. Then, just as he decided it was time to put memories and this old technology to rest, he noticed a forum posting by Alessandro Barteletti regarding art on the early Amiga. Alessandro is a bright young Italian photographer who was just three years old when the Amiga was launched. Don and Alessandro started a correspondence, each as determined as the other to reclaim this piece of history. Alessandro confirmed that the files were still intact. While they seemed to be image files, however, every attempt to open them continued to end in machine reboots.
Then, Alessandro noticed a file on the disk designated ‘Andy’. In June 1985, no windows-like operating system existed, and what Don had was AmigaDOS. Programs were opened from a DOS prompt and everything had to be on the same disk to run. Those early programmers renamed the program ‘Andy’ to make it easier to run the software. Thus ‘Andy v27’ had nothing to do with Andy Warhol. It was the software to create the images. Here was the missing link, not ProPaint but a pre-release piece of software that was never marketed. It had been in Don’s possession all along. In fact, it may be the only copy left. Don had initially tried to open it, but when it crashed his machine he left it alone. Alessandro was positive this was the key to the restoration of the graphic files. But it wouldn’t run. Was this yet another brick wall?
Finally, Alessandro emailed Don with some exciting news. He had realized that owing to the way the Amiga handled memory, Don needed a pre-release version of the boot ROM, which the motherboard would need to run the disc. Alessandro painstakingly searched his sources and found a version of the June 1985 motherboard ROM. Lo and behold, he got ‘Andy’ to run. The screen showed ‘GraphiCraft Beta Release 06 for V27, 15 July 1985’, exactly as shown on the pictures displayed from the Amiga Lincoln Center launch. This was probably the first time in decades this software had been run.
Now Don was excited. Were the files still readable? He booted his Amiga 1000 with the pre-release ROM Alessandro had supplied. He inserted the floppy marked ‘Andy V27’ and got an Amiga Dos prompt. At the prompt he typed ‘andy’ and up popped GraphicCraft. He right clicked the toolbar and open picture was now a choice. Nine picture names were displayed. They opened. ALL OF THEM. For the first time in over 26 years Don was running GraphiCraft pre-release again and viewing Andy Warhol’s artwork! The images were exactly as he remembered them. He immediately emailed Alessandro, sharing his success.
Aided by the brilliant techno-sleuthing of Alessandro Barteletti, Don enjoyed the challenge and success of finally being able to open the disc and look down memory lane. This disc is Don’s own copy. He has now been able to copy the images to a PC format and they are saved as JPGs so I could also view them.
After my visit, while Don was amassing his new collection of Amiga hardware and software, he contacted the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Arts and the Andy Warhol Museum, as well as former assistants to Andy Warhol, to research more of this history. Vincent Fremont, who worked closely with Andy, remembers how Andy had learnt to use the Amiga computer at the 33rd Street studio and that there had been at least one disk of Andy's early computer art. Don is certain they met at the studio as his office was right next to where the Amiga was set up. Vincent did not, however, know what had become of the computer or the disc. He believes copies of the Commodore agreement with Andy are in the archives in Pittsburgh.
Nevertheless even if the Museum does have any of the Amiga floppies from the 33rdStreet studio, Don Greenbaum and Alessandro Barteletti take their place in history as the men who restored Andy’s first and, it would seem, only foray into digital art. Just as the great conservators of the past have been able to restore Great Masters, Don’s and Alessandro’s expertise and painstaking work have resurrected Andy’s images from the old technology. The ‘Nine Warhols’, all signed by him and including three self-portraits, waiting in the wings for over a quarter of a century, may yet take their rightful place amongst Andy Warhol’s oeuvre.