The Warhol Amiga discovery in context

A team of digital archaeologists recovered a series of images off floppy disks from Andy Warhol’s estate, including a number of experimental images created by Warhol himself. Judging from the comments in the various places that covered the discovery, the Internet is unimpressed.

Yes, these images appear to be the result of Warhol messing around. In many ways, they’re not all that different from what anyone might produce today messing around with a digital camera and a simple paint program with a fill pattern.

I’m not sure how many of the critics realize Warhol created this stuff in 1985 or perhaps even late 1984, using preproduction, prerelease hardware and software. All of it was likely buggy. And, as much as I like the Amiga, none of it was anywhere near today’s standards at that point. The stuff he had to work with was nowhere near 1989 standards–the Amiga in its early days was notoriously finicky.

In 2014, two pre-production Amiga computers, peripherals, and disks containing experimental computer art were discovered in Andy Warhol’s archives.

But let’s talk about the technology. Most of the images are 640×200 and 32 colors. That’s not much to work with, especially by today’s standards. But in 1985 it was revolutionary. Computer graphics got better because software publishers quickly took to doing the graphics development on an Amiga, like Warhol’s, then downscaling the images to the target computer. Ironically, the Amiga made its competition better by making their software better. The graphics capabilities of computers today is much better, which is why Warhol’s images are blocky and have very simple colors.

The Amiga was able to do better than that. But most of the software technology that allowed higher resolutions and greater numbers of colors hadn’t been invented yet and wasn’t available to Warhol in the machine’s very early days. Yes, the Amiga used a lot of software tricks to get more out of its custom hardware. In those days, it usually took a couple of years for developers to figure out everything a new graphics chip could do.

The state of the industry is also noteworthy. Microsoft Windows wasn’t out yet and was five years away from being usable. The original Macintosh only came out in January 1984; the Lisa had come out a year before that. It’s entirely possible that someone had to teach Warhol how to use the Amiga’s mouse, pull-down menus, and 3.5-inch floppy disks. Everyone had known for several years that this was the direction the industry was going. Countless companies raced to bring the wonders of the Xerox PARC lab to consumers. But just about everyone arrived later than expected. Warhol’s preproduction Amigas, whenever they arrived on his doorstep, were quite unlike any computer he probably would have seen prior. The Amiga team was later to market than they had hoped. They ran out of money several times. Even after Commodore bought them, they had problems with their software. They also had legal challenges from Atari.

Warhol’s disk collection is indicative of this. One of his disks contained a previously undiscovered version of the Amiga’s Kickstart. Kickstart is a critical part of the Amiga operating system. The team had some trouble finding the right combinations of disks to get Warhol’s software collection to work properly.

Warhol also had hardware many people didn’t have at the time, including a touch-tablet and at least one video camera. The capabilities suited his style. That may have had something to do with why Commodore wanted to use him to promote the new machine. But the relatively small number of images he produced and the pristine state the machines are still in suggests he did little more than learn to use the machine enough to demonstrate it to the press and follow Commodore’s instructions. It doesn’t appear that he explored very deeply into the capabilities of the hardware he had. Whether this was due to lack of interest or lack of time, I’ll probably never know. But it’s noteworthy that he died in January 1987. At the time of his death, the camera and tablet he used hadn’t made it to market yet.

Had Warhol lived long enough to see release versions of his camera and tablet, and later Amigas with more memory and storage, he would have been able to do more interesting things. I’m convinced that the images from his disks are the result of a 55-year-old man learning for the first time how to use a mouse, a touch tablet, and the graphic fills. And that’s why the images resemble what many people created in their first computer classes in the late 1980s. His Amigas probably didn’t have a clock and calendar. That was an optional add-on for the Amiga 1000. Lack of a clock and calendar make it difficult to date the files.

I think Commodore blew it by not having Warhol do more with the machine. It’s true the machine was still well before its prime when Andy Warhol died. But I can’t help but think Warhol’s insights into the machine and his success as a pop artist could have helped the machine reach its prime a bit sooner.

Then again, Commodore’s marketing department had no idea what they had in this machine. They wouldn’t listen to the engineers who created it. So I suppose it’s no great surprise they didn’t think to ask Andy Warhol what they had. And there’s no guarantee that if Warhol had figured it out and told them, that they would have listened to him either.

One thought on “The Warhol Amiga discovery in context

  • April 25, 2014 at 8:25 am
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    Thanks for putting this in context. I had seen other stories, but no analysis.

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