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From the Oscars to Olympics

Inspired by Dr. Seuss and comic books, Burton Morris has been compared to the great pop artists of the 1960s.

August 13, 2004|Jennifer C. Yates | Associated Press

FOREST HILLS, Pa. — The "For Sale" sign on Burton Morris' front lawn is a testament to his success.

Since his brightly colored, oversized artwork first appeared on a bottle of Absolut Vodka more than 10 years ago, Morris' art has gone global.

His painting of a steaming cup of coffee became a fixture in the Central Perk coffee shop on the set of "Friends." He designed a successful Academy Awards poster. And his paintings are on exhibit at the Olympic Museum in Switzerland.

Morris, 40, an official artist of the U.S. Olympic team, has been compared to the great pop artists of the 1960s. Although he's glad to be mentioned with Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein, Morris said his paintings of brightly colored popcorn bags, ketchup bottles and other images of popular culture don't have any deep, hidden meaning.

Call it the "new pop."

"I think it's OK to make people smile with your art," said Morris, surrounded by canvases in his basement studio just outside Pittsburgh. Hanging on the walls are three large panels that when pieced together show a huge Jolly Green Giant. Sitting in a corner is a multicolored dinosaur, the Lady Liberty Stegasaurus.

Morris, like Warhol, grew up in Pittsburgh and graduated from Carnegie Mellon University. His interest in art, however, started much earlier and quite by accident. Put in a body cast after breaking his femur at age 3, Morris began to draw to pass the time.

He was inspired by comic book artists and illustrators and names Dr. Seuss and Charles Schulz among his heroes. But he's still grateful to so-called pop artists of the 1960s who opened doors for him.

"I'm not a Warhol. I keep saying it's the water we drink," Morris joked. "I see it like a blender. You throw it all in and (my work) comes out."

Jeff Jaffe, co-owner of Pop International Galleries Inc. in New York, said the gallery has been exhibiting Morris' work for about six years. He said Morris' style of bright reds, yellows, purples and spiky, black lines -- which Morris calls "energy lines" -- is unique and immediately recognizable.

"People like his work. There's a general positive view of his work," Jaffe said. "It's fun and energetic and playful and gets right to the point. You don't have to think too much about it, and that's what pop art is."

Morris does have his critics, though, including Tom Sokolowski, director of Pittsburgh's Andy Warhol Museum. Sokolowski believes Morris is a talented artist, but he's talked with him about making his work more edgy. Sokolowski said serious artists, especially those original pop artists, question things.

Morris thinks it doesn't need to be that complicated.

"That's their message, but this is my message," Morris said. "I think it's OK to be positive. We need that right now."

Alan Smith, Morris' business manager, said the artist is most proud of the money he has helped raise through his art. At Cedars-Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles, Morris' work was used at a benefit for the Speilberg-Pediatric Research Center at which more than $1 million was raised.

"People describe him as a pop artist. With Burton, his canvases are a window of popular culture," Smith said.

For the U.S. Olympic team, Morris painted a Statue of Liberty standing amid the Olympic rings and surrounded by stars. His giant painting of a pickle hangs in the lobby of a H.J. Heinz Co. building in Pittsburgh, and large green, red and orange Heinz ketchup bottles are on display at the city's convention center.

He has done work for AT&T, Sony and Microsoft. His paintings, which range in price from the low thousands to up to $30,000, have been sold to celebrities, including Oprah Winfrey, John Travolta and Tim Allen.

Last year, Morris was chosen to create a poster for the Academy Awards ceremony. His poster of a retro-looking photographer next to a golden Oscar statue was made into 86-foot-tall banners that were displayed at the February telecast; 50,000 posters of the image were distributed.

"It was also a nice way of kind of bridging the retrospective and classic feeling that the Oscars has in many people's heads, at the same time it still had a very modern and bold feeling," said Randy Haberkamp, the academy's special projects coordinator.

Morris doesn't know how his art will be seen in 10 or 20 years, but his hope is that he can continue to reach as many people as possible. Through it all, he said he will continue to maintain a studio and residence in Pittsburgh.

"To be part of the fact that I'm able to make it in Pittsburgh makes me proud," Morris said. "This is my home. This is my city."

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