Sweet cats, coy angels, and shoes, shoes, shoes — these were some of the things Andy Warhol favored as subjects, long before his name was affiliated with the Campbell’s soup can and gridded portraits of celebrities. These darling depictions filled pages of his earliest illustrated books, which he produced in the 1950s after his move to New York City. Warhol published eight different ones between 1952 and 1959, mostly in editions of 100, and distributed them to potential clients to promote his work. Some have since been reprinted, but Taschen recently reissued a collection of seven, each reproduced to hew as closely as possible to the originals in format, dimension, and paper stock.
Andy Warhol, Seven Illustrated Books (1952-1959) compiles what are arguably Warhol’s most personal works, with their quirky drawings and handwritten texts exemplifying his fanciful musings. All represent collaborations of some kind, with writers sometimes contributing words, photographers passing along images for Warhol to trace, and many friends willingly coloring images at parties that the artist would throw.
The titles of the books alone are intriguing, from Love Is a Pink Cake — which pairs doodles of 11 famous lovers from Western history with bawdy rhymes by Ralph Thomas Ward (aka Corkie) — to the Proust-inspired À la Recherche du Shoe Perdu — which presents colorful sketches of Seussian footwear. In the Bottom of My Garden, a nod to a song by Beatrice Lillie, has pages filled with pink-skinned putti that romp, kittenish, among flowers and cats. Rendered in various illustrative styles, they reveal Warhol’s unique talents and ardent visions as a commercial draftsman.
“While seeking out the least expensive living arrangements during his early years in Manhattan, he worked his Pittsburgh contacts, found good agents, and courted his new clients and friends with small handmade gifts, including the promotional books,” art historian Nina Schleif writes in an accompanying essay. “Judging by their complexity, Warhol considered some of the books serious artistic endeavors. What’s more, three of the manuscripts suggest that he had genuine ambitions as a children’s books illustrator.” He did, in fact, end up contributing drawings to a number of children’s stories.
Taschen’s packaging of the collection is elaborate, with each book fitted within a massive, foldable case that would make for a perfect coffee table display — if you have a large enough coffee table. Schleif also contributes introductions to each artist’s book, with German and French translations, that together make up a separate giant, 56-page guidebook illustrated with rare photographs of Warhol. The lavish format lends the collection an aura of mystery and awe — opening the case sort of feels akin to opening a reliquary, except the relics are saucy and endearingly silly.
Take 25 Cats Named Sam and One Blue Pussy, which actually features drawings of 18 colorful cats, by Walter Chandoha, the “godfather of feline photography.” In Warhol’s hands they resemble stoned cousins of the Cheshire Cat, all wide-eyed and bemused. Or Wild Raspberries, an aberrant cookbook penned with Suzie Frankfurt, which includes very particular recipes for fabulous dishes, from Calves’ Head to Roast Iguana Andalusia to Chocolate Balls à la Chambord (“to be served to very thin people.”) Some of the most enigmatic wonders belong to In the Bottom of My Garden, in which putti prance in wide-brimmed hats and a grasshopper with wings like a tailcoat plays a viola. In one illustration, a blue cat exchanges glances with a plump cherub as it rubs its side against the child’s raised bottom. The message sent between the two is anyone’s guess.
Andy Warhol: Seven Illustrated Books (1952-1959) is available now from TASCHEN.