Iconic Pop Artist Burton Morris on Why His Art Is a Hit With Celebrities and CEOs
Burton Morris, a Pittsburgh native, broke into the art world in a similar fashion to Andy Warhol, who also hails from Pittsburgh, when Absolut Vodka selected him to design artwork for “Absolut Pennsylvania,” a national advertising campaign started by Warhol. The piece he was commissioned to design had all the markings of a Burton Morris masterpiece—bold colors, thick lines and varying sizes of triangular “shards” used for shadowing, outlining and accentuating features of the artwork. Like Warhol, Morris understands the power of personal branding and has been working on the “shards” his whole life, ever since he was inspired by 500-year-old Albrecht Dürer etchings that he saw in a museum as a young boy. Those shards that Morris has been developing since childhood would eventually become the distinguishing characteristics of his artwork which has been immortalized in the homes of corporate giants, in Kanye West’s “Heartless” music video, in Oprah Winfrey’s office, via a Barack Obama-commissioned guitar, and on the set of the TV show Friends.
Over the span of a 30-year career, Morris’ art has left no stone unturned. He’s done sculptures, portraits, logo design, T-shirts, murals, seltzer bottles, Pop-Tarts, Coors Light and cover work for the Oscars. He’s a prolific artist with a tenacious work ethic and chops in corporate branding. He’s been commissioned by Perrier, Absolut and the U.S. Open to create one-of-a-kind artwork that will be remembered as the defining pop art of our time. Kanye West commissioned him to create several works featuring cartoon characters from The Jetsons to hang in his home. In his music video for “Heartless,” Kanye showcases Morris’ work in animated recreations of Kanye’s actual living room where they hang. Barack Obama personally commissioned Morris to decorate a Fender Stratocaster as a gift for Obama’s senior advisor Pete Rouse, along with other works that were used as gifts for foreign dignitaries. Oprah Winfrey has a piece Morris created of two red slippers hanging in her office, which she said reminds her of home and to believe in herself. Stan Lee, Keanu Reeves, Mr. Rogers and countless other celebrities and CEOs have Morris’ work hanging in their homes and offices.
Morris’ rise to prominence wasn’t easy; it’s been a journey marked by hardships, life lessons and a little bit of luck. He’s been hospitalized twice—once when he was a boy for two months after an accident on the monkey bars, and again in 2011 when he was diagnosed with colon cancer. As a young boy in a full body cast, he could only move his arm and fingers, so he took up drawing and inadvertently set in motion a passion for art that would fuel a three-decade-long career and put his work in the national spotlight.
Today, Burton Morris lives in Los Angeles with his wife and three children, where he spends his time being an artist, a businessman and a father.
Morris recently sat down with Worth to give insights about his prolific career, surviving cancer and what it’s like to be commissioned by big stars and big businesses.
Q: When did you first start making art?
A: I broke my femur bone when I was three-and-a-half years old. I thought I was Tarzan; I loved the comic books, and I was playing on monkey bars, and I jumped, and I fell, and I broke my femur. So, at that time in 1967, they put you in a full body cast. I literally stayed in the hospital in a body cast for two months and all I could do was move my arms and draw. So that’s what started me drawing, and I started drawing Superman, Batman, Spider-Man. In the Pittsburgh children’s hospital where I was hospitalized, there’s a picture of me, and they have it as a story to show where someone can go with their career.
Your artwork uses a lot of intricate triangles that you call “shards.” Can you describe how those developed?
The shards came from probably around [when I was] 12 years [old], when my family used to take me to an art museum where we lived. They had on display Albrecht Dürer etchings, 500-year-old etchings. I used to be fascinated by these engravings, and I didn’t know how he did it, but I’d draw these marks and they were like little shards. So, over the years, the lines got more graphic and more like shards that I would use to energize my artwork.
My advertising background taught me that when you push to brand something, the power of a brand mark is repetition; that’s what Andy Warhol was known for—repetition. I want people to know it’s a Burton Morris, but how do you do that? So, I developed this look. Over time I really developed and pushed that style so everything I did was within that style. So, people would say “oh, that’s a Burton Morris,” and you could tell by the shards. My idea was to keep branding my look; my message was really symboling of popular culture. I started getting known for these simple one-off symbols, I hand-painted everything. I use acrylic paint, when I paint the way I do. I do that because I want it to be a very simple, graphic, straight message. I started showing my work in galleries, and it took off. In 1992, [I was] selected as the Absolut Pennsylvania artist. It was cool that Andy Warhol did the first ad. So, for me, that was a huge hit because it cemented my style.
Who are your influences?
I was a design major at Carnegie Mellon, and I was heavily influenced by Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol and comic books. I was a comic book kid; I liked Thor, Captain America, Tarzan. I drew a portrait of Stan Lee when I was 10 years old and later gave it to Stan Lee. Years later, Stan Lee asked me to create a Silver Surfer behind his desk. For me, that was huge; every comic book guy in the world sees that. I’d get emails from them, and Stan truly was a superhero in real life. I’d go to lunch with him, and he’d say, “you know what Burt, I feel like a 21-year-old in my mind.”
My parents always instilled the belief that [if you] believe in yourself, you could do anything. It’s interesting…the journey it’s taken me, the people I’ve met.
How has cancer affected your career? How did you find out about it?
In 2011, I noticed stomach issues, and for three months, I thought I was allergic to some kind of food, I couldn’t figure out was wrong. One day, I went to my primary physician, and he said don’t worry, take Metamucil, you’ll be fine. One day I noticed, in early March, blood. So, I went in to see a surgeon for a colonoscopy, and when I woke up, they discovered I had cancer.
Now, I’m a big advocate for getting cancer screening—it saves lives. I’ve told hundreds of people because I think it’s important.
I was 47 years old, and I was in shock. They gave me the pictures, and you could see the cancer cells hanging on my colon. So, I’m lucky because within a couple weeks, they cut my stomach open and cut six inches off my colon. Then, I went through a year of chemo and that was difficult because my oldest daughter, raising her and running a business, it was a nightmare. You’re throwing up every day, you’re not yourself, but you’re mentally not yourself, you’re beat up. Over the next couple years, I had something called “chemo brain,” and that beats you up…you feel overwhelmed by certain things. The good news is we beat the cancer, and after five years is when they feel you’re OK.
How did your art get into the show Friends?
It was a fluke. I had started a T-shirt company at the time, and apparently one of the cameramen was wearing the T-shirt of a baseball player, and David Schwimmer was going on to play his part in a baseball scene, so he took the T-shirt from the guy who was wearing it and put it on. I called my sister and said, “hey can you check out some show called Friends.” The next day, I ended up calling Warner Brothers; I got the creator of the show on the phone, and I said one of your actors is wearing a T-shirt of mine. And he said, “I love that shirt. What other artwork do you do?” Then he said, “hey would you like to come to the show, and we can see your work.” I got on the set and hung out with Courteney Cox. I said, “hey good luck to you.” She was dating Michael Keaton at the time. I said, “good luck to all of you, I hope your show takes off.” They ended up wearing two T-shirts, a series of neckties, every season they’d use a new piece of art in Central Perk or in one of the rooms of the cast members. Over the years, the cast members all acquired work; they bought a couple pieces for Jennifer Aniston’s birthday.
What type of work did you do for the Obamas?
This is kind of interesting. I did a handful of paintings over the years. Back then, I’d create paintings that the Obamas would give as presents to foreign dignitaries. It was cool I was on the radar because they saw my art years ago and liked it. President Obama commissioned me to create a presidential guitar that he gifted Pete Rouse as a thank you. I created a special guitar that was presented in the Oval Office. I literally got a check from the Obamas, which was funny.
Separately the White House contacted me [to see] if I was able to gift President Obama a Liberty print that I made, which will be in his center they’re building.
What about Kanye West?
Kanye West was one of my early providers; he commissioned me to do a bunch of Jetson images. I worked with him for two years, and we created big paintings of the Jetsons. We worked together on designs of how the Jetsons’ interacted. He and I sketched together some concepts; he used them in the “Heartless” music video, you can see my art on the walls.
He truly is a very creative and very good artist. He’s a very artistic individual, and he keeps evolving. Apparently, Kanye was in the gallery of my art in Los Angeles; he liked my Bob’s Big Boy, so he bought it for his kitchen. Back then, he was living as a single man, he was in the Hollywood Hills coming out with his new albums. He always had an amazing eye and sense of artistic taste. He was extremely nice and great to work with. He would invite us to concerts. The guy has a million ideas.
Who are some other celebrities who have your work?
Psy, the artist who created “Gangnam Style,” loves my work. Over the years, you sell work to galleries and individuals, so you don’t always know who has your art. My work was sold in Singapore, Italy, France; my art is hanging in one of John Travolta’s jets.
Oprah has my Red Slippers piece in her office that she sees every day. She loves it because it represents believing in yourself, there’s no place like home. I never sold directly to Oprah, but apparently, it’s been in her office for years.
Keanu Reeves, I’ve been to lunch with him a few times, he’s got a piece I gifted him. He’s more minimalist, but who knows.
Tommy Hilfiger commissioned 100 cans of Coke for his home after seeing my art at an art show. He had a 27-room estate, and one room was a Coca-Cola room.
The CEO of Coca-Cola has my art; he has three paintings in his office. Danny Meyer from Shake Shack, he’s got my art of the Shake Shack symbol. Robert Herjavec is a Batman fan, so I did some work for him.
How is your art evolving?
Now I work on iconic works with abstract thinking, so I see my artwork maturing. I went through a year of chemo, we couldn’t believe how cancer throws your life apart, it kind of set me back a bit physically [and] mentally. I’m constantly evolving as an artist.
There are different tiers of artists, but to survive as an artist, that’s not an easy thing. It’s day-to-day, and 30 years later, I’m still doing this. It becomes a business as well. Artists need to learn business, how to write proposals. The art world is unforgiving, today’s hit artist is good for a year. I’m always trying to reinvent myself, I’m still the same Burton Morris, but I’m always thinking about creating new things. I’m developing into sculptures.
I’m in talks with two institutions and doing more work [with] the Children’s Hospital of L.A., also getting involved with some benefits and events. I’m scheduled to have a big show in Boston in September, but I don’t know if that will happen, so nobody knows. I’m always working on new art, preparing for new shows. I know I’m going to have a few more shows in L.A., Chicago, either Milan or Rome.
What do you think about NFTs?
I had about a dozen calls from people asking if I should do it. The good thing for the artist is they give the artist the chance to…if the artwork sells, it’s almost like a licensing concept or royalty based…if it resells, the artist makes a percent of a sell. Over 30 years, I’ve sold my art, but if someone resells it, I don’t see any money. But in this case, the artist makes money on royalties of every piece sold. The concept is interesting, but it’s hard to kind of wrap your head around. When you see a piece of artwork in person, it has a whole different effect than when you see it on a computer screen because of the texture, the light, it really does have a different wow factor. I think it’s exciting, and it’s another new part for the art world to explore. Art to me is seeing something, experiencing something in a unique or special way. I don’t think the art experience will ever change, but I think it’s a good way to change art in the future. It’s a way for artists to make money in a new market, I just don’t know. It’ll be interesting to see what will happen. I think it’s another new way to expand artistic horizons, it will open up new ways people can enjoy art and see it and be part of the art experience.