Burton Morris: Pop Artist Reimagines the Rabbit

Burton Morris is many things—an American pop artist in the tradition of fellow Pittsburgh native and Carnegie Mellon alum Andy Warhol, a former advertising art director and a lifelong devotee of comic superheroes, which he taught himself to draw at the age of three, when a well-intentioned attempt to imitate Tarzan on the monkey bars put the budding artist in a full-body cast for two and a half months. And come this fall, Morris can add “Playboy artist” to the list. On November 9, the artist will debut an original collection of Playboy-inspired work at Taglialatella gallery in New York City.

Morris lay the groundwork for his signature style—bold, colorful, graphic renderings of objects with pop-cultural significance—long before his collaboration with our Rabbit.

“Growing up in Pittsburgh, I loved comic books, I loved cartoons, I loved color,” Burton tells Playboy. “Pittsburgh had a lot of gray days, so I loved to add color in all my art.”

The city helped form Burton’s creative sensibility in other ways. “When you look at my work,” he says, “you can see I’ve tried to take single objects and logo-esque forms and create an inspired piece. Usually my message has been based on what is going on in pop culture. Pittsburgh has changed immensely, but back then, I remember smoky steel mills and big blast furnaces. I know that had an impression on me.”

Burton’s subconscious attraction to “cartoons, bright colors and pop-like things” set the stage not only for his career but for his 2017 collaboration with Playboy. Our Rabbit first burrowed into Morris’s visual lexicon decades ago when he encountered a collection of playboys in a friend’s attic and was immediately inspired by the visuals—though not, as you might assume, the nude pictorials.

“The magazine was full of art,” Burton explains. “The pop art movement really inspired me, and playboy embraced artists. Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol, Keith Haring, Tom Wesselmann, Alberto Vargas, LeRoy Neiman, Peter Max—they all worked on playboy. When I think about how playboy has inspired generations of great artists—I mean, incredible artists—and someone like me who was just begging to see more art, it really was a great breakthrough.”

If Warhol’s big break was soup cans and bananas, Burton’s was coffee and vodka. He entered the limelight—quite literally—in 1992, with a painting of a coffee cup that contributed to the visual identity of the hit NBC show Friends. (The piece hung in “Central Perk” for more than 10 seasons.) That same year, Burton was selected as the Pennsylvania artist representative for an Absolut campaign, which introduced his work to vodka drinkers across the world.

Since then, he has developed a portfolio characterized by distinctively American collaborations with Coca-Cola, Heinz, the Academy Awards and the U.S. State Department, as well as international commissions for megabrands such as Chanel, Rolex and Perrier.

Collaborating with Playboy was a natural next chapter. “Playboy always stuck out in my head. It’s out there and always has been.”