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The moment Andy Warhol went digital by painting Debbie Harry on an Amiga Computer

While the lasting impression of Andy Warhol’s post-modernist art continues to be felt in today’s throwaway culture, there was one moment in his career though that may have been bigger than many of us thought. The moment Andy Warhol took his Amiga 1000 and created his first digital work, a portrait of the formidable Blondie frontwoman, Debbie Harry.

Most of Warhol’s more notable work came from his New York hub of creative activity known simply as The Factory during the 1960s. But while his most famed work may be largely based in that decade, Warhol continued creating and producing art right up until his death in 1987. While he approached the end of his life, he began to embrace the modernisation of the world and became fascinated with computers.

The machines had moved firmly out of the brains and classrooms of universities and had started to infiltrate Warhol’s most beloved thing; pop culture. As they became household items the machines began to rank next to Campbell’s Soup and Heinz Ketchup as recognisable brands, they also began to offer artists a way to create new mediums of expression. Warhol was now more than intrigued.

In a recent biography of Apple’s founder Steve Jobs, Walter Isaacson shares a curious moment of a chance meeting between some notable figures. The event was Sean Lennon’s ninth birthday, the late John Lennon’s son and also saw Lousie Nevelson and Keith Haring in attendance. Another curious invite was Steve Jobs and under his arm was a Macintosh computer. While he began to show Sean how to work the Mac, the attention of the little one soon waned and in his place Jobs found himself showing Warhol how to use a mouse and the pencil tool. “Look! Keith! I drew a circle!” Warhol said to Haring.

As an introduction to computers, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better teacher than Mr Steve Jobs. According to reports, Jobs had previously tried to contact Warhol to show him the machine and the art it could produce. Warhol never returned his calls seeing no place for computers in his artwork.

Just under a year later though, in 1985, Warhol would use a computer to make some artwork and to rub it in he would use the newly launched Commodore Amiga 1000. The machine was being positioned as a ‘multi-media’ computer and so attracted a less than typical tech crowd when it launched at the Vivian Beaumont Theater in New York. While we were yet to experience the excruciatingly cringe, launch parties we’re now ashamedly used to, Commodore did have an ace up their sleeve.

They would use the Amiga 1000’s multi-media tools to create a piece of art live on stage. There was only one man for the job; Andy Warhol. The artist agreed to create a piece live on stage but needed a subject, for Warhol there could be only one and her name was Debbie Harry.

The longtime frontwoman and dominant force behind Blondie, the singer had transcended the band’s punk roots and broken in the genre of new wave like a cowboy does a bucking Bronco. She was the epitome of cool; ferocious, frenetic, effortless, nonchalant and without doubt the most watchable person in the room.

With the scene set Warhol began the work by capturing an image of Harry and then using ProPaint (still in early testing) to manipulate the image’s colours. It left the piece with a striking resemblance to Warhol’s screen prints of old like his brilliant Marily Monroe, Elvis or Liza Minelli.

Looking back now the work can feel, well, it can feel a bit primitive if not a tad childish. Some kids could probably knock this up in several minutes—but at the time, it was a work of art befitting Warhol’s name. Warhol too was obviously enjoying his moment creating the work and was heard saying: “The thing that I like most about doing art on the computer is that it looks like my work.”

Warhol’s work with the Amiga didn’t end there. Not only was he featured as the cover of “the creative issue” which saw Warhol with an Amiga showing an image of Andy Warhol, with an Amiga showing an image of Andy Warhol with an Amiga. But he also created a short film using the computer. Titled YOU ARE THE ONE it featured digitalised images of Marilyn Monroe from the ’50s but remained a hidden treasure until 2001. The music was discovered on another disk labelled “soundtracks for imaginary movies, ie. you are the one.” It didn’t stop the Museum of New Art in Detroit premiered the film in 2006, showing it only for one day.

So, there you have it, given a brush, a mouse or a stone and some dirt, an artist will always make art. The good ones though, they will change the way you use your stone. Andy Warhol certainly did that.

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