Warhol By The Book: The Orbit Review

Book cover for Andy Warhol "In the Bottom of My Garden"

“In the Bottom of My Garden”, 1955-56

Two decades ago, this blogger bought a cookbook. Back in those dark ages, we didn’t have the same opportunities to immediately share this groundbreaking news with the world, but thank goodness that wrong can be righted today.

It was in an antique shop in rural Virginia where I found a beat up copy of Amy Vanderbilt’s Complete Cookbook for a couple bucks. Amy is an 800-page Doubleday hardback, published in 1961, that contains all the (quite literal) meat & potatoes recipes of mid-century middle America: Turkey a la king, Swedish cornets, potatoes au gratin, “Pablo’s Spanish rice.” In the pre-Epicurious days, people still needed nuts-and-bolts cookbooks like Amy Vanderbilt.

"According to the Evidence", 1953

“According to the Evidence”, 1953

It wasn’t until some time later that I noticed a small credit on some of the book’s breeze-through front matter: Drawings by Andrew Warhol. The simple line figures that illustrated cut lemon garnishes or rolled Roquefort tea sandwiches never stood out to me as particularly noteworthy and my knowledge of Andy Warhol’s pre-fame commercial work was pretty limited, so I wasn’t even sure if this was the same guy.

Well, it was. Or it is. Whichever. Andy Warhol had a wealth of pre-soup can commercial work (roughly the full decade of the 1950s, and then less frequently in the ’60s) and much of this was in the context of book illustration. Those early drawings, along with photography and silkscreen work from the second half of Warhol’s career, make up the terrific new show Warhol By The Book, up now at The Warhol Museum through January 10, 2016.

Andy Warhol "So Meow" print

So Meow [note: the print in the show has a green cat]

The exhibition is a fantastic deep-dive into anything book-related that Warhol worked on. Included are gorgeous dyed lithographs, original pencil drawings, (rejected) book proposals, correspondence with publishers, fountain pen-through-paper towel ink drawings, celebrity photographs, late-career silkscreens, and many final-product trade reproductions. And yes, there’s a copy of Amy Vanderbilt.

silkscreens of book art from "Warhol By The Book" exhibit at The Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh, PA

1980s era silkscreens

While the photos and silkscreens are interesting, this home-cooking art fancier’s socks were quite figuratively knocked off by the drawn-by-hand half of the show. The rooms of Warhol’s early illustrations have always been my favorite part of the museum and this new show opened up that world in entire new ways. Aside from maybe some of the 25 Cats pieces, I’m not sure I had encountered any of the hundreds of original prints and drawings that make up that section of the exhibit.

Warhol’s Factory-era silkscreens are of course iconic and interesting in their own right, but seemingly lost in that fame was the incredibly beautiful drawing hand of the artist. The coupling of his great, loose style, tastefully deployed bursts of color, Warhol’s distinct schoolyard cursive captions, and the Carnegie Tech-educated, less-is-more design sense make each of these wonderful little new discoveries.

"Borderline Ballads", 1955

“Borderline Ballads”, 1955

Back in February, The Orbit gushed over The Warhol’s Sister Corita Kent show, which had just opened, calling it “the best Warhol Museum show this blogger has ever seen.” We’ll stand by that that assessment. But the By The Book exhibit is right up there. Book it.

lithograph and watercolor illustration from "25 Cats Name Sam and One Blue Pussy"

Illustration from “25 Cats Name Sam and One Blue Pussy”, 1954

Nun of the Above: Corita Kent at The Warhol

Someday is Now: The Art of Corita Kent show at The Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh

Someday is Now: The Art of Corita Kent at The Warhol

Radical nuns making religious pop art?  The grocery store across the street both inspiration and source material?  No need to tell us twice: the Orbit is there!  We may not have known it, but this was the show we’ve been waiting for this our entire lives and we got a first look on opening night.

Someday is Now: The Art of Corita Kent is up at The Andy Warhol Museum through April 19, and I cannot recommend it more.  It is the best Warhol Museum show this blogger has ever seen.  (Yes: that includes Diane Keaton’s clown painting collection.)

Sister Corita Kent lived, taught, and created art at the Immaculate Heart Community in Los Angeles in the 1950s and ’60s.  The lecture we attended mentioned that Sister Corita was fully booked with teaching and nun duties for much of the year and managed to do nearly all of her voluminous silk screen work in a very brief window between the end of classes in the late Spring and the start of Summer.

art instruction, Immaculate Heart Community

Nuns having fun: screen printing at Immaculate Heart Community

These periods of high production were often followed by cross-country summer road trips wherein the sisters would literally take their art to the people, traveling all the way to the East Coast, setting up roadside cheap art fairs at all points in between, wherever their station wagon landed.  Many of the surviving prints still have the tack marks to prove it.

The backstory is intriguing, but the art is fantastic.  It’s beautiful and clever, sacred and psychedelic, deeply meaningful and goofy.  My favorites are the silk screen pieces from the mid-60s where Sister Corita took familiar magazine advertising and product packaging, distorted, rearranged, and otherwise mutated it, and then usually combined it with Bible verses (you’ve got to get in close to read these) to turn the original message (often literally) on its head.

The color combinations are wild: often radically garish choices of fluorescent pinks and greens that seem like they shouldn’t work, but do.  The printing technique is really fascinating as well: words broken into multiple colors and bending text.  All this achieved in a low-tech, pre-Photoshop era by cutting, bending, and folding paper and then re-photographing to generate the required two-tone originals.

(My) photos don’t do justice to these fantastic pieces.  You need to get in close and read the fine print.  The show left me feeling incredibly awake and alive and inspired and envious.  Trips to Shur-Save haven’t been the same since.   Get yourself down to The Warhol while you still can.

Someday is Now: The Art of Corita Kent show at The Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh

Someday is Now: The Art of Corita Kent at The Warhol