Pittsburgh Post-Pop Phenomenon
    Burton Morris signing prints in his studio.

    Burton Morris signing prints in his studio.

    You know the work of internationally acclaimed artist Burton Morris. You’ve seen his designs for the United States Olympic Team, the 2006 MLB All-Star Game, and the 2016 US Open Golf Tournament. Or perhaps you saw “Poptastic! Two Decades of Pittsburgh Pop Artist Burton Morris” at the Heinz History Center in 2013. Given his stellar accomplishments, it should come as no surprise that exemplars of Morris’s work are in dozens of prestigious collections and museums.

    The subject matter of his work is pleasing and quite recognizable. “I create icons that represent today’s culture,” says Morris, who calls that moment an “instant happening.” “You get an excitement that takes you back to somewhere in your memory.”

    Absolut Pennsylvania (Absolut Vodka Statehood campaign).

    Absolut Pennsylvania (Absolut Vodka Statehood campaign).

    Simply constructed, clear graphic shapes outlined in black and filled in with primary colors, as seen in one of his “Popcorn” series, are hallmarks of Morris’s art. Note the over-full box, reminiscent of the kind we’ve all gotten at movie theaters. It’s not hard to guess that Morris loves popcorn.

    If Popcorn reminds you of Andy Warhol, it should. Morris is considered a post-pop artist. More on that in a moment.

    Yes, Burton Morris is a Pittsburgh native son who honored his city with an image of the Point on a bottle of Absolut Vodka in 1992. The design was selected to represent Pennsylvania in the prestigious Absolut Vodka Statehood campaign. That award kick-started his nationwide career. In 1994 the hit NBC sitcom Friends first used Morris’s paintings on the walls of the now-famous Central Perk Coffee shop; that continued throughout 10 seasons.

    Andy Warhol (Nightstand Portrait series).

    Andy Warhol (Nightstand Portrait series).

    The artist was born in 1964 when his family resided in Squirrel Hill; he went to Wightman Elementary there. A family move in 1971 took him to Churchill; he graduated from Churchill High School in 1982. Morris went on to attend Carnegie Mellon University, where he received a BFA degree in 1986. During his senior year he won an award for designing the logo for the Pittsburgh Public Schools, a design that is still in use today. Morris credits CMU with giving him an excellent artistic and design foundation, gratitude that he has generously given back through lectures and work with students at his alma mater.

    Morris stayed in Pittsburgh after graduation, working in graphic design. He went out on his own in 1990 when he opened the Burton Morris Studios. The highly successful company created original work for businesses worldwide.

    In 2004, Morris was given the singular honor of creating the logo and major artwork for the 76th Annual Academy Awards. The design perfectly captures the glitziness of Hollywood. But what is truly fun here is that you, the viewer, are the person being photographed. Welcome to instant stardom, a la Burton’s “Post Pop” style!

    Burton Morris presents his finished portrait of Stan Lee to the late Marvel Comics mastermind in 2016.

    Burton Morris presents his finished portrait of Stan Lee to the late Marvel Comics mastermind in 2016.

    Morris spent endless hours drawing even at the tender age of 3. His parents encouraged him to take classes at the Carnegie Museum of Art when he was 10 years old. He began winning art awards early—at age 12, when he was selected as the winner of the national Kellogg’s Stick Up for Breakfast Contest. “I won an Atari video game and played the game Pong all year long,” Morris recalls.

    At the museum he discovered 16th-century German artist Albrecht Dürer’s exquisitely precise, detailed work. “I drew tiny-line artwork for years to mimic Dürer’s art,” says Morris. This became what Morris calls “shards of energy that would bring my art to life.” Note the jagged border in Popcorn. The influence is also clear in those careful, black outlines of his objects.

    2004 Oscars design.

    2004 Oscars design.

    Another influence was comic book art. “As a child growing up in the 1960s, I loved comic books and cartoons,” Morris reminisces. His sense of primary colors came from them.

    And finally there is the influence of Pittsburgh native and fellow CMU graduate Andy Warhol. “His pop art style and concepts opened up the doors for what I do today.” Warhol presented easily recognizable images from popular culture, reflecting them back to society in a way that allowed them to take on new meaning. Whereas Warhol’s works often blur the image with color or double exposure, and are done with silkscreen, Morris’s work is crisp and clean, colored by acrylic paint laboriously applied in multiple layers “to get a smooth and consistent effect.” The result is inspiration, not duplication.

    One of Morris’s ongoing series of paintings is his Nightstand Portrait series. These paintings tell a story about an admired icon—nonfictional or fictional—being portrayed through personal objects that are placed on his or her nightstand before going to bed. “I was going to sleep one night and was looking at what was sitting on my nightstand. There was a lamp, glasses, my watch, pictures of my family, etc. I thought this could be a great way to portray someone in a painting. The next day I immediately started wondering what would be on Andy Warhol’s nightstand. Or Superman’s. Or anyone’s.” In his portrait of Warhol’s nightstand we find, among other things, a soup can, his famed glasses, a camera—Warhol loved taking pictures—and a Marilyn portrait. What would you put on your favorite icon’s nightstand? It’s an interesting thought and problem to solve.

    How would Morris picture the Strip? “It is so unique, it has so much character. There’s so much color, vibrancy, merchants, new buildings, renovation, food—it blew me away. The new Renaissance I call it. I would portray it with many different Pittsburgh icons starting with a Primanti sandwich and going from there!”

    Would Morris ever move back to his hometown? “I love Pittsburgh and it will always be home to me. It is always a possibility.”

    Until then, we can all enjoy his work with great pride.

    Cynthia F. Weisfield is a freelance writer whose articles about art and food appear regularly in multiple publications. She is a graduate of the University of Chicago and has recently completed a biography about noted abstract expressionist artist Sonia Gechtoff. She lives in Mt. Lebanon. For more information, visit: Burtonmorris.com
    All illustrations courtesy and copyright Burton Morris