Burton Morris, who grew up in Pittsburgh and studied at Carnegie Mellon University, was influenced by the leading pop artists of the 20th century, including Pittsburgher Andy Warhol. (Sen. John Heinz History Center photo )
Burton Morris, who grew up in Pittsburgh and studied at Carnegie Mellon University, was influenced by the leading pop artists of the 20th century, including Pittsburgher Andy Warhol. (Sen. John Heinz History Center photo )

You may wonder why a regional history museum is hosting an art exhibition, but to pop artist Burton Morris, it makes perfect sense.

Morris is from Pittsburgh, and the exhibit at The Senator John Heinz History Center is a historical retrospective of his work spanning 25 years.

Not bad for a nice Jewish kid from Squirrel Hill.

“Poptastic! The Art of Burton Morris,” officially opened Sunday. The 3,000-square-foot exhibition, which features more than 100 works of art, runs through Feb. 23, 2014, on the fourth floor of the History Center.

Dollar Bank presented the exhibition.

Morris has shown his artwork in Pittsburgh before, but not like this.

“I have had gallery exhibitions [but] I have never had a museum exhibition in my hometown,” he told the Chronicle.

“This is probably a 25-year collection of my works,” he continued. “It really extends from when I was 3 years old. It’s really a historical perspective of my artwork and detailing how my perspective has evolved from my childhood growing up in Squirrel Hill.”

That perspective began with comic book heroes. The now 49-year-old pop artist used to draw them, citing these figures as his earliest influences. The explosion of colors he found in those cartoons morphed into the trademark color his work is known for today.

But it wasn’t his only influence.

By the time he was 10, Morris was experimenting with pen and ink. He would visit the Carnegie Museum and study etchings by the great masters that were hundreds of years old and try to replicate what they did.

The result was a heavy line delineating his fields of color — it’s sometimes called an “energy mark,” he said.

“That sort of defines my style,” Morris said. “My art is defined by the black art line work as well as the colors I use. The colors probably stem from the comic books — the primary colors — and probably stem into what I’m doing today.’’

Morris’ big breaks came in 1992 when Absolut Vodka selected his artwork to represent Pennsylvania for its Absolut Statehood campaign. “Andy Warhol had created the first Absolut ad,” he said. “That’s why it was such a big deal as an artist to be part of the campaign. He opened the doors for the work I do.”

That same year, his paintings began to hang in Central Perk, the fictitious coffee shop on the long-running NBC sitcom “Friends.”

“They used about a dozen paintings throughout the [10-year] duration of the show,” Morris said.

After that, his career took off. He would go on to create art for the 76th Academy Awards, the Paris World Cup Soccer Games, the 38th Montreux Jazz Festival, the 2004 Summer Olympic Games and the 2006 MLB All-Star Game.

He also has created signature artwork for the H.J. Heinz Company, Chanel and the Kellogg’s Corporation to spearhead a new campaign for Pop Tarts.

Morris’ artwork has also helped to raise millions of dollars for charities worldwide.

But he never forgot his Jewish roots. He’s done art for the Hillel Jewish University Center, Jewish National Fund, Hadassah and the Zimmer Children’s Museum in Los Angeles — a Jewish museum — to name a few.

“Obviously, I’m a Jewish artist,” he said, “but I’m known more for international imagery.”

Morris is comfortable being called a pop artist. In fact, he said it rather defines him.

“My influences were the superheroes; which were, in a sense, pop art,” he said. “Also, I was born the same year that, in a sense pop art, was founded — 1964 — so I’m a product of the pop art generation.”

He was referring to the 1964 art exhibition in New York, “The American Supermarket,” which featured some of the leading pop artists of the day, including Warhol. The show, which was presented as a typical U.S. small supermarket environment, is regarded as a defining moment for the pop art movement.

Morris, a 1986 graduate from Carnegie Mellon University, said the History Center exhibition “pulls together a lot of events, and shows how my style of artwork has evolved in a very educational and proportional way.”

He said visitors to the exhibition will learn how his work “transitioned” through many different periods.

“It’s not just your typical throw-art-up-on-the wall show,” he said.

The son of Bunny and Sonny Morris, Burton is married to Sara, also from Pittsburgh and the daughter of Nate and Debbie Firestone. The couple has a daughter — Ava, 4 — and lives in Santa Monica, Calif., where Morris has his studio.

“I’ve tried to give back, to help others,” he said of his career. “I’m just very fortunate to see my art style is shown all over Asia, India, Europe, South Africa; we have collectors all over the world. And that’s just the last 25 years; I still have a lot more to do.”

(Lee Chottiner can be reached at leec@thejewishchronicle.net.)

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