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The Automated Andy Warhol Is Reprogrammed

May 16, 2002|AL RIDENOUR | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

As the Museum of Contemporary Art primps this month for the only American exhibition of the Andy Warhol retrospective, another Warhol sits on the sidelines, a twin in Chatsworth ready to leave home as soon as his programming is complete.

The resemblance is uncanny: the hair identically chopped, the mole precisely placed and the skin equally pasty, even if it is silicone. Below the neckline, however, the celebrity likeness dissolves into a tangle of hydraulic tubing, electronic actuators and aluminum bones.

Fabricated in 1982 for a production that never left the ground, this robotic Andy Warhol has lingered for 20 years at AVG, a firm that designs and fabricates mechanical characters for movies, theme parks and exhibitions. A deal was struck with a private collector last month, and the robot is being prepped for the handoff. Alvaro Villa, who worked for Disney Imagineering and founded AVG in 1978, said he will miss his animatronic Andy, adding, "It's become a sort of icon for the company."

Villa says the Andy Warhol Museum in the artist's hometown of Pittsburgh had expressed interest in acquiring the robot but made no counteroffer when a private collector approached Villa unexpectedly. Preferring not to give the amount of the sale, Villa says the buyer disclosed little.

"He was very mysterious," Villa says. "I honestly can't even tell you his nationality because another person came to negotiate for him."

Museum director Thomas Sokolowski admits to a fascination with the robot but says he is not convinced it would have been a good investment. "It could distract from the experience of the paintings rather than enhance it. Particularly for Americans today, a Madame Tussaud's or robotic light show is far more exotic than any painting."

The mechanical figure was created as the star of a touring multimedia stage production to be co-produced by Warhol and Broadway impresario Lewis Allen. Tentatively titled "Andy Warhol's Overexposed: A No-Man Show," the automated theatrical curiosity was to have cost an estimated $1.25 million, but funds never materialized. Sokolowski says the production was to have depicted the artist's daily routine of sitting in bed while dictating his diaries over the phone.

Villa never saw a script and never got as far as programming the lip-sync, but other functions are complete, including 54 movements ranging from shrugging shoulders to a bobbing Adam's apple. He also recalls preliminary discussions about making robotic dachshunds to stand in for Warhol's pets, Amos and Archie.

The yearlong process of creating the $400,000 robot-actor began with the actor's visit, when his voice was recorded, his motion videotaped and his body photographed from hundreds of angles. John Davis, who then headed the company's sculpture department, recalls Warhol enduring measurements with calipers and sitting for photographs with stickers attached to the pivot point of his jaw. "He was very patient and quiet," he says, "and I think I'd have to call him shy." Castings were taken from Warhol's hands to duplicate detail down to the fingerprints.

Using the photographic reference, Davis sculpted a head around custom eyeballs and off-the-shelf teeth from a dental supplier. From this, he created molds and cast rubber skins as well as a fiberglass skull that would support the bonier parts of the face. A body with removable panels was cast in plastic, and this hollow shell then went to the AVG mechanics responsible for devising a motorized musculature. The completed figure was then airbrushed, clothed and topped with a Warhol-esque wig.

So why didn't the robot see its 15 minutes of fame?

Sokolowski says that investors could not be convinced that all technical issues had been resolved. "Could the show pay for touring costs? Would the robot break down? Would you have to pay 40 technicians to come along?" These, according to Sokolowski, were real concerns, along with the fear that the robot's technological sophistication would be outdated before the curtain ever rose.

Robot's Monologue

Was Never Created

The no-man show, Sokolowski says, was the brainchild of director Peter Sellars, who intended to write a script based on the artist's diaries and two of his books, "The Philosophy of Andy Warhol" and "Exposures." But Warhol never recorded a monologue and, after his death in 1987, plans to have an actor read the lines or to edit something from existing recordings by Warhol didn't materialize.

The notion of casting a robot to play the artist may have been sparked by Warhol, who declared in the 1960s that he would like to be a robot or machine. "In many ways, it wasn't that great a stretch. Just look at tapes of him being measured for the project," Sokolowski says. "His movements are very wooden, almost robotic."

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