Sunday, June 27, 2010

James Warhola's "Uncle Andy's Cats" (2009)

Animals have been an integral part in the lives of many artists and writers. Creative individuals with career reputations for being reclusive, difficult or aloof have had their favorite pets. Late in life even the seemingly incorrigible William Burroughs himself played host to a succession of felines, and in 1954, unlikely as it seems, Andy Warhol already had a Manhattan apartment overrun with cats.

That year, he created a picture book of cats to give as Christmas gifts featuring calligraphy by his mother Julia. All but one of the Warhol cats (the real ones, 25 of them) answered to the name Sam, except for one named Hester, a gift from Gloria Swanson. Warhol hand-painted each of the lithographs in the edition of 150 copies of the book, and tinted Hester a beautiful pale wash of color.

The book's name came from a suggestion by Warhol's friend Charles Lisanby. Julia wrote out the cover title with a missing letter "d": 25 Cats Name Sam and One Blue Pussy. Warhol was charmed by the accidental nature of the imperfection and left his mother's original spelling intact. Itwas never disclosed whether Warhol also meant to include only 17 cats in each book -- perhaps he felt that given the nature of cats, they would multiply in number to 25 soon enough.

Which, apparently, is indeed what happened. James Warhola, the artist's nephew, completes the picture with Uncle Andy's Cats (Putnam, 2009). It's the wide-eyed, illustrated children's story of how Hester and a single Sam created a houseful of pets in the unlikeliest of settings.

Warhol's new uptown apartment, in 1962, is already bursting with the advertising displays, Brillo boxes, and raw material of the new art he was creating. A carousel horse stands in the living room, and Siamese cats courtesy of Sam and Hester are everywhere. For James it's a carnival-mirror image of his own father's work as a Pittsburgh junkman, and the seven-year-old is understandably delighted. He and his six siblings have the run of the townhouse's three floors, play in rooms crammed with bric-a-brac, wake Uncle Andy in the morning curled up with a bed full of cats.

The carnival atmosphere, of course, is not for everyone. In the previous story of Uncle Andy's: A Faabbblous Visit With Andy Warhol (Putnam, 2003), James's mother wonders when Andy is going to clean up the mess. James and his father, though, are amused at Andy's ability to turn what looks like junk into something else altogether: art.

The cats, surely one or two who were presented as gifts as well, made an impression on Warhol's young nephew. His family's trips from Pittsburgh to New York provide James with an early and very unique glimpse of an artist at work. The visits are also an ad hoc education on the value of creative chaos.

The two books illustrate a cheerful family dynamic, presenting an aspect of Andy's private life that seldom gets explored, and as a children's book it's natural that the impromptu family visits never collide with Andy's more arcane and famous personal pursuits. But the visits inspire James to develop as an artist, briefly working for Andy himself, then as an illustrator of science fiction (to Andy's chagrin) and also a staff artist for Mad magazine as one of its "Usual Gang of Idiots."

Both books are meant to be fun introductions to the original King of Pop. Warhola's intention in creating the books for children, he states in an illustrated interview, is to demonstrate "there are better things in life than watching TV." In addition to his career as an illustrator Warhola is a consultant of the Andy Warhol Museum of Modern Art in the family's ancestral town in Slovakia, a permanent exhibit filled with art created by Andy, Paul, and James.

(This post is for Dexter, the eleven-year-old adventurer, who has decided on his own to summer elsewhere than a house with two German Shepherds and a half-blind collie. )

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