Like the rest of us mortals, artists own pets. Some have dogs, others take care of parrots, but an impressive number of painters, sculptors, photographers we all adore is owners to those enigmatic, furry animals known as cats. In fact, there are so many of them that an entire book could be written on the subject – and so it was, by Alison Nastasi, in a publication simply titled Artists and Their Cats. Accompanied by a series of photographs of the most famous figures in modern and contemporary art with their cats, the book surveys the roles felines played in their lives, and even the way they affected the practice and artwork of these artists – after all, felines have been a subject in the arts for centuries now. Think Pablo Picasso, who portrayed women with cats both in 1900 and 1964, for instance, or Paul Klee, whose most notable work perhaps is a portrait of a cat and a bird, or Balthus and Andy Warhol, both of whom dedicated multiple drawings and even entire artist books dedicated to the animal.
But what came over Alison Nastasi to write Artists and Their Cats in the first place? Why were cats so important to these men and women? Of this and more, we talked to the author in an exclusive interview. Have a read below!
Artists and Their Cats by Alison Nastasi
Widewalls: You explored the world of artists and cats in your recent book titled Artists and Their Cats. Can you introduce it to our readers? How did the idea of writing this book come to be?
Alison Nastasi: Several years ago, I wrote an article about artists and their cats for Flavorwire.com, where I am the weekend editor. The idea came to me after reading about Tracey Emin’s cat Docket, who is featured in some of her work. The art editor at Chronicle Books spotted my listicle and asked me if I would be interested in expanding the subject for a book. I loved the idea, because, in addition to being a writer, I’m also an artist who keeps cats as pets. They’ve been a constant part of my time working in my studio.
Widewalls: How long have you researched this topic, and what sources did you use? How difficult was it to obtain all the materials?
AN: A lot of time went into curating the right selection of images. I wanted a mix of artists who most people would know – like Salvador Dalí, who is on the cover with his pet ocelot, Babou – and a few I might be able to introduce to certain audiences, like Claude Cahun. Diversity was extremely important to me when choosing artists.
The writing and research took a few months. Everyone I reached out to was very helpful. I corresponded with Georges Matisse, who is the great-grandson of the famous Henri Matisse, about the elder Matisse’s cats. Donna Van Der Zee, the widow of Harlem Renaissance photographer James Van Der Zee, told me about his photo session with Jean-Michel Basquiat. Laura Kuhn, the director of the John Cage Trust, worked closely with Cage during his life and shared some personal stories. Their information was fascinating and indispensable.
Widewalls: There is an impressive list of names in it. Most of them are well-known and world-famous artists. What drew them to adopt a feline friend, in your opinion?
AN: Artists tend to spend long stretches of time alone so they can stay focused on their work. Many artists do this while locked away in a studio. Cats bring a certain energy to a space, but they’re generally independent creatures. This makes them the perfect companion for the artist. Both can cohabitate peacefully without making demands on the other.
Widewalls: Do you have a favorite from the book?
AN: It’s difficult for me to choose just one favorite, but I remember how much Burroughs’ photo and message about love, which is quoted in the book, moved me. I wrote Artists and Their Cats shortly after both of my cats passed away.
I think each photo captures a part of the artist’s personality. There’s just something really adorable about seeing an iconic artist turn to mush when their cat is around – like the photo of Hermann Hesse crawling around on the ground with one of his cats.
Inspired by Felines
Widewalls: Can you tell us some of the anecdotes from the book? How did some of the artists interact with their cats?
AN: Dalí, who was a complete exhibitionist, would bring Babou to public places. Imagine eating dinner next to a 30-pound ocelot on a leash near your table. People would often panic, which amused him.
At one time, Andy Warhol had 25 cats in his New York City apartment.
Ai Weiwei’s cats can be seen in the documentary Never Sorry. They roam around his studio in Beijing. One of them can even open doors.
Widewalls: Is there any story of an artist being directly inspired by their cat, and how did this inspiration manifest in art?
AN: Oh yes, I think most of the artists included in the book were directly inspired at one time or another.
Warhol wound up writing a book called 25 Cats Name Sam and One Blue Pussy. (“Name” is not a typo, either. His mother did the lettering for the book and accidentally left the “d” off the word. He liked it and kept it.)
Paul Klee, whose cat’s name was Bimbo, made many cat paintings.
Jim Henson’s love for cats and all animals clearly inspired his work on the Muppets.
Agnès Varda created an image of her late cat for the logo of her film production company. The cat was also featured in one of her art installations.
Louis Wain made these wild, psychedelic cat paintings of cats. He credited a lot of his inspiration to his cat, Peter.
Widewalls: It’s been two years since the book has been published. When you look back, what are some of the best and also hardest moments you experienced while writing it?
AN: Sometimes there’s a lot of detective work involved in tracking down information that is extremely personal, like the name of someone’s cat. It’s always rewarding when you can piece together bits of information and finally see the complete picture.
The hardest moments involved having to exclude an artist and cat for one reason or another. For example, I wanted Karl Lagerfeld and his cat Choupette in the book, but I believe they were creating a book about Choupette at the time, so we wound up not working together. There’s no grudge between us, though. I still follow Choupette on Instagram (yes, she has her own social media manager). She’s fabulous.
Widewalls: Do you own a cat now? Did any personal reasons draw you to write this book?
AN: I own two cats, a brother and sister named Lynx and Luna. I adopted them in 2014. They’re both very striking and completely white. Lynx is very talkative and has heterochromia. One eye is blue, and the other is green. Luna is very shy and has a bobtail, which is super cute and makes her look like a bunny.
I dedicated Artists and Their Cats to my late cats who were wonderful pets. Several years ago, I was living and working in a massive artist loft in Philadelphia that was big enough to ride a bike around inside. They loved the space and always kept me company while I worked.
I live in Los Angeles now with my boyfriend (another artist, he’s a filmmaker) and create my art at home. Lynx and Luna are always very curious about what I’m doing and love to try to dip their paws in my paint water.
Widewalls: What can we expect from you next? Is there any new book in the making at the moment?
AN: I’m really excited to announce that I’m currently working on a new book for Chronicle Books called Writers and Their Cats. I just finished drafting the final list of writers. I think readers will be really pleased with the variety. Stay tuned to my Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and website for updates about the book and to find out when it will be released. I can’t wait to share more!
Editors’ Tip: Artists and Their Cats
Pablo Picasso, Andy Warhol, Frida Kahlo… so many great artists have shared one very special love: the companionship of cats. Gathered here for the first time are behind-thescenes stories of more than 50 famous artists and their feline friends. From Salvador Dali’s pet ocelot Babou to John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s menagerie of cats, including Salt (who was black) and Pepper (who was white), Artists and Their Cats captures these endearing friendships in charming photographs and engaging text, and reveals what creative souls and the animals best known for their independent spirits have in common. In this clever compilation, art aficionados will discover a softer side of their favorite artists, and cat lovers will enjoy a whole new way to celebrate their favorite furry friends.
Images courtesy Alison Nastasi.