Warhol Would Have Embraced AI Art
Andy Warhol and the Amiga: How a Pop-Art Icon Thought About Digital Art
Andy Warhol was enamored with the first computer he ever owned—and he didn’t seem all that worried about the risks of disruption.
If there’s any famed artist who would likely “get” the power of generative AI for creatives right from the jump, it’s likely Andy Warhol.
The pop artist’s work represented a powerful example of remix culture in action, and it was from that basic starting point that he developed an entire visual language that came to encompass music, movies, even an entire cultural scene.
Thanks for reading NEWART! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.
Sure, the soup cans and screen-printed drawings offered a great starting point. But they proved to shape an entire world of creativity whose influence went far beyond any individual screen print or artistic image.
Which perhaps explains what he saw in the Commodore Amiga. The computer, a famously ahead-of-its-time device with a feature set that seemed destined to attract visual artists along with traditional gamers, utilized the interest of Warhol and another New York counterculture icon, Blondie singer Deborah Harry, to help promote this new tool to computer users around the world.
And just like the way generative AI is encouraging some artists to extend their skill set today, when Warhol saw a computer that threatened to make his art style trivial to replicate, he didn’t turn away.
The moment Andy Warhol first found the computer for him
If you really think about it, we’ve allowed external tools to extend our creativity for generations. We don’t often think of ideas from whole cloth.
Anyone who spent time in the graphic design salt mines knows this well. After all, stock photos come in handy because it’s often harder to create a visual starting point from whole cloth than it is to borrow someone else’s point of view. Even for talented artists, it’s nice to avoid undertaking photo shoots every single time you need a fresh landscape photo.
In this light, it is understandable why Andy Warhol saw something in the Commodore Amiga. Warhol, a skilled screen-printer who once shoved his face in a photocopier for artistic reasons—years before everyone else had the same idea, mind you—was at the forefront of the pop art movement.
But even more than that, he was one of the first people who saw that machines had something to offer to the artistic process. The artistic technique for which Warhol became best known—a mixed-media mixture of tracing, painting, and screen-printing—treated the mechanical part of the process, the screen print, as a transformative element, even though it was technically “just” a recreation of something that already existed.
Perhaps for that reason, a quarter-century after he discovered that technique, Warhol found himself on the stage at the Lincoln Center in New York City, at the launch event for the Amiga, a computer that capably could be used as a creative tool.
The message that the July 1985 event emphasized, through its use of music and visuals—the Amiga’s famed bouncing-ball demo made its debut here—was that this machine was the future.
Nobody at Commodore could hold a candle to Steve Jobs from a presentation standpoint, however, so they brought in Warhol to do a demonstration in which he illustrated Deborah Harry using the machine.
“Are you ready to paint me?” Harry asked before sitting in a chair, getting her photo taken and immediately imported into the new device.
Warhol ended up coloring in Harry in a mixture of vibrant hues—red, yellow, and blue—that both evoked his earlier screen-printed works and also would be completely taken for granted by generations of computer art programs that would supersede it, like Adobe Photoshop, Paint Shop Pro, even Microsoft Paint.
Warhol saw a machine that was capable of turning what was once a multistep process into something that technically anyone could do in minutes.
What Andy Warhol, famous creative person, saw in the Amiga
Warhol could have left the Amiga on that stage, and nobody might have gotten upset with him about it. We were still in the early days of affinity-driven marketing. The first Air Jordan, for example, appeared in stores just three months prior. Presumably, whether in Amigas or in Commodore-endorsed checks, Andy Warhol likely got paid.
And sure, maybe affinity had something to do with Warhol appearing on the cover of Amiga World magazine the next year, in that magazine’s third issue. (That he appeared at all is perhaps a surprise; in the piece, according to an editor of Interview magazine—a publication Warhol founded, no less—Andy doesn’t do interviews.)
But it becomes clear that Warhol is champing at the bit to use the new technology.
At the time of the interview, the Xerox had gained a deep influence on the high-art world, as it helped to make it possible to make ambitious new kinds of mixed-media artwork that weren’t previously possible.
The Amiga seemed to be able to take things even further, though one challenge Warhol faced was that he couldn’t get a hold of an Amiga-compatible printer to actually put his images on a sheet of paper—not even a normal-sized one, let alone one that would let him produce prints.
Nonetheless, he was way ahead of his peers. He said that other artists of the era—including Jean-Michel Basquiat, who he name-dropped twice in the interview—were embracing the opportunities that new technology had to offer. Many had already shown a deep interest in using technology like the Amiga—including Interview staff members—but Warhol was in an unusual position, in that he was one of the few people to have access to the tool.
Warhol saw a high potential that tools like the Amiga would open up to new kinds of creators, including amateurs. Though, at the time, it was still a pretty exclusive device.
“Well, I’ve been telling everybody about the machine, but they haven’t been able to get one yet,” he said.
Compare this to the early months around generative AI, where people seemed to be wanting to cut to the front of the line to access MidJourney or ChatGPT. Generative AI has become a status symbol, with the buzz behind it at first reflecting a similar sort of exclusivity.
When Warhol painted that picture of Debbie Harry, one of the things that seemed to come through in that display was that Warhol’s style translated particularly well to the format. At the time of the interview, Warhol admitted that this creative compatibility made it easy for him to latch onto the Amiga’s capabilities.
“The thing that I like most about doing this kind of art on the Amiga is that it looks like my work,” he was quoted as saying.
During the interview, he was working to put the finishing touches on a set of Dolly Parton prints. When speculating on his use case for the Amiga, he talked of moving the device to his studio, where he would be able to simplifying his production process, especially for prints.
“It’ll be really great, and if we can get a printer, I’ll do this portrait in four different colors and send them out to Dolly,” he added.
Given that much of his art was process-driven, perhaps it makes sense that he found some value in making that process easier.
One question that drives much discussion in the generative AI realm is the idea of whether new, simplifying technology devalues the work of creators.
This was a question that was also around in the 1980s and 1990s, when digitized art in general was first emerging. Would making art with a computer make things too trivial—or worse, threaten the copyright of talented people?
It was not an isolated fear, and one that large companies made a point to argue.
“Your works can be uploaded into massive networks accessible by millions of people,” said Louise Dembeck, a Time Warner vice president, according to a 1994 Associated Press article. “If you don’t know who’s getting it and who’s printing it off the screen, it’s just there for the taking.”
Warhol was asked about this very issue, but pointed out that many prints are actually supposed to be exact replicas. He did not seem concerned about copying. “Well, you can stop at whatever you want,” he said. “Etchings usually stop at a certain number.”
But what about the idea that a machine could so easily mimic his style? When posed this question, he pointed out that other artists had gotten their hands on the Amiga and had taken it in different directions.
“It looks like the work that I started doing,” he said, making it clear that where he started is different from where they would end up. “I still think that someone like a decorator could use it when he wants to show somebody how their apartment would look like all in blue or all in white, or … they could just do it so easily. Change a chair or a color.”
Warhol’s thinking on this issue ultimately turned out to be true. Millions of artists use graphical tools of all sorts, but there’s still plenty of room for unique voices to emerge.
Warhol, unfortunately, died less than two years after that iconic display with Deborah Harry at the Lincoln Center, the result of a complication from surgery, so he did not get to see how the creative computing market played out.
While the Amiga had some notable wins among artists—the Video Toaster chief among them, along with the growth of the British dance music scene, which found much to appreciate in the Amiga 500’s four-channel stereo setup—the Macintosh ultimately won the battle for artistic minds thanks to its early success as a desktop publishing tool.
We also never got to see just how creative Warhol, a masterful experimenter with new tools, could be with an Amiga 1000 at his desk.
While he did create some works with the new tool, including the posthumously recovered You Are the One, he didn’t have a chance to go as far with it has he could have. He worked with The Velvet Underground for more time than he worked with the Amiga—and, no criticism meant of the work of that groundbreaking band, but the Amiga had more untapped potential.
In a way, the fact that he wasn’t around to see later explosions of creativity around new technology actually gives his words on creativity more power, though.
Think about the way that people listened to record collections, and how, once everything under the sun was suddenly available in Spotify, it sort of took the luster out of collecting music. That’s why vinyl came back, after all.
Reading how Andy Warhol was able to see the possibilities at the start of the creative computing revolution—even though, within a decade, Photoshop made it trivial to rip off Warhol’s iconic visual style—somehow makes it all feel special again, even if it is arguably easier to do it through a computer.
Generative AI is today’s way to stretch creative possibilities. You can either see it as a door-closer or a way to open the gates. While Warhol isn’t here to let us know, it’s clear that he didn’t see new technology as a threat to his creative process.
It’s possible he might have even asked for an illustration in a Warhol style.
Subscribe to NEWART, a publication exploring the past and future of creativity and technology