When Andy Warhol first became famous, few knew what to make of his art. When Apple first released the Macintosh — dramatically promoted with that Ridley Scott Super Bowl commercial — few knew what to make of it either. The year was 1984, when almost nobody had seen a graphical user interface or even a mouse, let alone used them, and the Macintosh looked as strange and compelling when it entered the computing scene as Warhol did when he entered the art scene. Both seemed so casually to repudiate so many long-held assumptions, an act that tends to startle and confuse older people but makes immediate sense to younger ones. What happened, then, when Warhol and the Macintosh first crossed paths?
Journalist David Sheff, who wrote an early profile of Steve Jobs and conducted the last in-depth interview with John Lennon and Yoko Ono, remembers it well. In October 1984, he and Jobs attended the ninth-birthday party thrown by Ono for Sean, her son with Lennon. As a present, Jobs brought along one of his company’s new Macintoshes and set it up himself in young Sean’s bedroom. “Sean took control of the mouse, and rolled the small box along the floor,” Sheff writes. “Steve said, ‘Now hold the button down while you move it and see what happens.’ Sean did, and a thin, jagged, black line, appeared on the screen. Sean, entranced, said, ‘Cool!’ He clicked the mouse button, pushed it around, and on the screen appeared shapes and lines, which he erased, and then he drew a sort of lion-camel and then a figure that he said was Boy George.”
Though Boy George may not have been in attendance, the party’s unsurprisingly fabulous guest list also included Andy Warhol (an “eccentric uncle” to Sean) and Keith Haring, both of whom Sheff remembers coming into the room as part of a crowd wanting to catch a glimpse of Sean’s new toy. It wasn’t long before Warhol, presumably compelled by the artistic impulse as well as by his fascination for all things new, asked if he could give it a try:
Andy took Sean’s spot in front of the computer and Steve showed him how to maneuver and click the mouse. Warhol didn’t get it; he lifted and waved the mouse, as if it were a conductor’s baton. Jobs gently explained that the mouse worked when it was pushed along a surface. Warhol kept lifting it until Steve placed his hand on Warhol’s and guided it along the floor. Finally Warhol began drawing, staring at the “pencil” as it drew on the screen.
Warhol was spellbound – people who knew him know the way he tuned out everything extraneous when he was entranced by whatever it was – gliding the mouse, eyes affixed to the monitor. Haring was bent over watching. Andy, his eyes wide, looked up, stared at Haring, and said, “Look! Keith! I drew a circle!”
In his diary, Warhol writes of entering Sean’s room to find “a kid there setting up the Apple computer that Sean had gotten as a present, the Macintosh model. I said that once some man had been calling me a lot wanting to give me one, but that I’d never called him back or something, and then the kid looked up and said, ‘Yeah, that was me. I’m Steve Jobs.’ ” But Jobs, possessed of as keen a promotional instinct as Warhol’s own, assured him that the offer was still good, and that he would also give him a lesson in drawing on the Mac right then and there. “I felt so old and out of it with this young whiz guy right there who helped invent it,” writes Warhol, noting that “it only comes in black and white now, but they’ll make it soon in color.”
The Macintosh made an appearance in Warhol’s “Ads” series of paintings in 1984, the same year he also agreed, according to Artsy’s Abigail Cain, “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” that included a 4,096-color display. At the machine’s launch, Warhol “used ProPaint to sketch Blondie lead singer Debbie Harry in front of a crowd of eager tech enthusiasts,” which you can see in the video above. Just a few years ago, the efforts of digital artist Cory Arcangel and specialists at Carnegie Mellon University recovered 28 long-lost digital paintings Warhol made on his Amiga. Whether the artist ever made anything with or even took delivery of his promised Mac, we don’t know – or at least we don’t know yet.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.