Before spearheading the Pop Art movement in the 1960s, Andy Warhol made a name for himself creating illustrations for some of New York’s most prestigious magazines. The route to his success was not easy though. A homosexual artist living in a sprawling city largely dominated by the hyper-masculinity of Abstract Expressionism, his effeminate illustrations initially placed him on the periphery of the fine art world. Luckily, he found creative comrades in commercial projects – magazine editors and socialites who admired his ability to appropriate the world around him and turn it into a unique, whimsical visual vocabulary.
Andy Warhol grew up in a Rusyn ghetto in Pittsburgh. The youngest of three brothers, his artistic career began when his father, recognising his son’s talent, saved up to pay for him to study pictorial design at Carnegie Institute of Technology. A sanctuary away from the noisy steel mills and factories of the city, the college helped him explore a wide range of creative interests. He attended an all-female Modern Dance Club, and joined the Beaux Arts Society. He also edited the student publication Cano, and regularly designed imaginative magazine covers. Determined to prove himself as a serious artist, he went on to win the Martin B. Leisser Prize for self-motivated summer art activities.
After graduating in 1949, Warhol took a leap of faith, hopped on a greyhound bus, and moved to New York to follow his dreams of becoming a professional illustrator. Early projects included a sweet Children’s book, quirky Christmas cards, and record covers for Columbia and RCA Records. Light hearted and filled with wit, his drawings were often fantastical, including depictions of fairies, elves, and playful putti.
Rapidly establishing himself within New York’s elite creative circles, Warhol kept up with demand by mastering the ‘blotted line’ technique. A rudimentary form of printmaking he had learned at Carnegie Institute of Technology, the technique involved drawing or tracing images onto a folded piece of transparent paper, applying ink or watercolour to the outlines, and then ‘blotting’ the ink while it was still wet to create a mirror image.
Fascinated by the speed the process afforded, Warhol used the same master drawing over and over again to create uniquely delicate, dappled lines of repeated images. Each image was similar but never identical. Rather than discarding imperfect prints, Warhol embraced the possibility of errors. After all, his ability to rapidly produce repeated images would go on to influence his subsequent signature style: transforming Campbell’s humble soup cans and photographs of Marilyn Monroe into mass produced silkscreen printed artworks.
Some of Warhol's earliest – and eventually most enduring – creative influences were cats. Living in New York’s East Village, he acquired a great number of them as pets. Without spaying or neutering them, their numbers rose rapidly. Some art historians estimate that he owned as many as 25. One of his biographers, Victor Bockris, describes the apartment Warhol shared with his mother as a ‘paper jungle’ where cats were constantly ‘clawing and pissing on Warhol’s materials and periodically storming through the unruly heaps of art work in fits of feline mania [...] The smell, they said, was something else.’
Their constant presence provided creative inspiration for one of his most important early book of lithographs called 25 Cats Name[d] Sam and One Blue Pussy — the typo was left in intentionally after Warhol’s Eastern-European mother (who was always a close collaborator of his) mistakenly missed off the ‘d’. Drawn using the blotted-line technique, Warhol traced stock images by animal photographer Walter Chandoha to create a series of different colour cats and had the finished collection printed in New York in 1954 by Seymour Berlin.
In March 2021, the original collection sold for $106,562 at Bonhams Fine Books and Manuscripts online sale. A specialist overseeing the auction collection in New York, Darren Sutherland, remarked that, as Warhol’s cat illustrations were ‘primarily given as presents or promotional gifts, they are fascinating for the light they shine on his later work.’
At the time, it was common practice for commercial artists to court magazine editors by sending small handmade gifts and promotional books. Tina Fredericks, the first art editor to pick up Warhol for Glamour magazine, remembers ‘eggs, wonderfully painted in traditional, complicated, colourful Ukrainian patterns.’
In 1959, Warhol created a collection of illustrated recipes called Wild Raspberries with legendary interior decorator and bohemian hostess Suzie Frankfurt. Reflecting on the recipe book, Frankfurt described it as ‘a funny cookbook for people who don’t cook.’ Playful in nature, it intended to poke fun at fashionable haute cuisine, with tongue-in-cheek recipes such as ‘Omlet Greta Garbo’, accompanied with instructions to ‘always to be eaten alone in a candlelit room’.
The collection lay dormant for more than forty years until Frankfurt’s son, Jaime, discovered the cultural treasure in his mother’s papers and published it in 1997. Historians have concluded that Frankfurt was responsible for coming up with the humorous words, Warhol was the chief illustrator, his mother provided calligraphic embellishments, and four schoolboys (who lived upstairs from Warhol) coloured in the drawings using Dr Martin’s dyes. In the end, only 34 copies were made and Warhol and Frankfurt mostly gave them away to friends. In the summer of 2019, the complete set of eighteen offset lithographs sold at Bonhams for the handsome sum of £48,812.
Warhol’s big break came when he produced a series of whimsical illustrations for I. Miller, a now defunct shoe designer for performers and movie stars. Jerry Stutz, the company’s president, encapsulated Warhol’s innovative genius in an interview in 1998: ‘Andy and I began a campaign, which was unprecedented at the time. We ran full pages, half pages, every Sunday in the New York Times. And it was a spectacular showcase for I. Miller and for Andy as well.’
‘It expanded his audience in a way that no magazine editorial ever could have. In a sea of tiny little images that were the pages of the Times, these bold blockbuster fantasies were extraordinarily effective. What the ads did was to revitalize and revive the I. Miller brand, and from a dowdy, musty, fusty, dusty, dowager establishment, it became a stylish emporium for debutantes.’ In 1955, Warhol collated his illustrations together and published them under the title, À la Recherche du Shoe Perdu – a playful riff on Marcel Proust’s famous novel À la recherche du temps perdu (In search of lost time).