Visual Culture

When Steve Jobs Gave Andy Warhol a Computer Lesson

Abigail Cain
Jan 8, 2018 8:34PM

Andy Warhol drawing Debbie Harry on an Amiga computer. Photo by Allan Tannenbaum.

It was October 9th, 1984, and Steve Jobs was going to a nine-year-old’s birthday party.

He’d been invited just a few hours earlier by journalist David Scheff, who was wrapping up a profile of the Apple Computer wunderkind for Playboy. Jobs was far from the highest-profile guest, however. Walter Cronkite, Andy Warhol, Keith Haring, Louise Nevelson, John Cage, and singer-songwriter Harry Nilsson were also in attendance. And Yoko Ono, of course—it was her son’s birthday, after all.

Despite the last-minute invitation, Jobs had managed to bring along a gift for the young Sean Lennon. A few hours into the party—once cake had been served and the adults began to talk amongst themselves—Jobs asked Lennon if he was ready to open his present.

It was, naturally, a Macintosh computer. Released in January of that year, the machine was the newest of Apple’s personal computing products on the market. Jobs set up the Macintosh on the floor of Lennon’s bedroom, demonstrating how to use the mouse by opening up MacPaint. The boy was enthralled by the program, initially sketching a few simple shapes with the paintbrush tool and then moving on to a sort of camel-lion hybrid.

A 1984 Macintosh. Photo via Dave Winer on Flickr.


A few of the adult guests wandered in, including Warhol and Haring. Warhol took one look at the computer program and turned to Haring in wonderment. “What is this? Look at this, Keith. This is incredible!” A few minutes later, Warhol asked if he could take a turn in front of the monitor. Jobs explained how the mouse worked, but the artist instead lifted it off the floor and swished it through the air. Finally, Jobs put his hand over Warhol’s and steered it along until he’d gotten the hang of it.

After a few minutes in concentrated silence, Warhol glanced up. “Look! Keith! I drew a circle!”

That night, Warhol recorded the episode in his diary. He’d told Jobs that a man had been calling him repeatedly, trying to give him a Macintosh, but Warhol had never followed up. Jobs replied, “Yeah, that was me. I’m Steve Jobs.” (The artist, famous for his neon-hued prints, also noted of the program, “It only comes in black and white now, but they’ll make it soon in color.”)

Intrigued by the potential of computer-assisted art, Warhol agreed in 1985 to be a spokesperson for Apple’s rival in the personal computing sphere—Commodore. The artist was to promote the company’s new computer, the Amiga 1000, and its cutting-edge multimedia capabilities: The Amiga could display a up to 4,096 colors at once, a revelation when most displays at that time were grayscale.

During the launch of the Amiga 1000 at Lincoln Center that year, Warhol used ProPaint to sketch Blondie lead singer Debbie Harry in front of a crowd of eager tech enthusiasts. “You’ve found it to be very spontaneous, right?” asked the presenter. “Yeah. It’s great. Such a great thing,” Warhol responded, his characteristic monotone so at odds with the statement that the audience dissolves into peals of laughter.

But he was being sincere. Warhol did seem to be enamored of the computer, agreeing to a rare interview for an issue of Amiga World in which he declared, “I love the machine. I’ll move it over to my place, my own studio.”

Despite this enthusiasm, for years after the artist’s death in 1987, Warhol’s computer art mostly disappeared from the public eye. Decades later, artist Cory Arcangel began to wonder what had become of it. He’d seen a few remnants of the experiments, including a clip of the Debbie Harry demonstration, but no one knew if Warhol had made any digital artworks outside of his role as Amiga spokesperson.

A bit of digging by Arcangel revealed a cache of nearly 40 floppy discs in the Andy Warhol Museum’s archives. But they hadn’t been examined in years; Commodore had gone bankrupt in 1994, and the technology to access the floppy discs and programs was long obsolete. From there, it was a treasure hunt to figure out how to reconfigure a system that could access the ancient (by digital standards) files—without harming the floppy discs, which were starting to come apart at the seams.

Andy Warhol, Andy2, 1985. © The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. Courtesy of The Andy Warhol Museum.

In the end, a score of retrocomputing experts from the Carnegie Mellon University Computer Club, museum experts, and artists collaborated to extract 28 digital works from the discs—including a three-eyed version of Sandro Botticelli’s Venus (1490), a Campbell’s soup can, and a self-portrait. The files by today’s standards are tiny, approximately 200 by 300 pixels. But they revealed a new facet to the already groundbreaking artist’s practice.

On that October night in 1984, when Jobs had first showed Warhol how to use the computer’s paint program, the artist felt like a fish out of water. “I felt so old and out of it with this young whiz guy right there who’d helped invent it,” he wrote.

But he caught on quickly, becoming one of the very first fine artists to work on a computer—and heralding a new generation of artists that would be raised on MacPaint and Microsoft Paint.

Abigail Cain