Blanton exhibit reveals lesser-known Warhol works

Before he became synonymous with Pop art — before the screen-printed images of Marilyn Monroe and Campbell soup cans, before his studio, known as the Factory, became the locus for a swirl of bohemian artists, Hollywood celebrities, intellectuals and high society — Andy Warhol was a successful and highly paid commercial illustrator.

It’s an often overlooked chapter of Warhol’s life. And yet it is key to understanding the origins of his radical contributions.

The exhibit “Warhol By the Book,” on view through Jan. 29 at the Blanton Museum of Art, smartly spotlights Warhol’s lifelong love affair with books and book design and illustration.

Though the exhibit comes from the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, the Blanton once again does what it does best with a traveling exhibit: The museum makes it very much its own show.

Sharp curatorial additions come from the Blanton’s own collection. The stunning installation features Warhol-designed wallpaper and continual screenings of Warhol’s “Screen Test” silent portraits of Warhol superstars. And a reading lounge sports two turntables and a lineup of albums with Warhol-designed covers for your listening enjoyment.

After studying commercial art at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Institute of Technology, Warhol lit out for New York City in 1949. He quickly established himself as an in-demand illustrator, penning ads and images with a whimsical, loose blotted-ink style that appeared in Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar and the New Yorker.

In 1952, his mother, Julia Warhola (Warhol opted to drop the “a” in the family name), joined him in New York, and the two lived together for the next 20 years.

Mother and son deeply bonded over their shared love of drawing. And Warhol freely appropriated his mother’s calligraphic writing and playful, graceful illustrations.

The two shared a fondness for cats, too, especially Siamese, which they made an ill-fated attempt to breed for business. Instead they ended up with a house overrun by felines, eventually numbering 25. Except for one named Hester, all the others were named Sam.

Warhola penned the calligraphic captions for her son’s 1954 artist book “25 Cats Name Sam and One Blue Pussy.” She left out the letter “d” in the word “Name” in the title (an immigrant from Eastern Europe, her first language was not English). Her son, fond of serendipity, kept the error.

So popular did his mother’s calligraphic style become that not only did Warhol make it a trademark of his commercial designs for ads, books and illustrations, he even trained artists working for him to replicate his mother’s curly written gestures.

Warhol’s relationship and artistic collaboration with his mother is but one of several often overlooked chapters of the artist’s life that this exhibit spotlights so charmingly.

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