Sophisticats

How the feline form in the mid-century evoked a cool yet spiritual persona with an aura of mystery
Sophisticats

They are sleek and sinuous, simple in form, and subtly curvaceous. Plus they purr, and they have been known to pose.

There is, too, a touch of luxe with their soft fur and whiskers. Add to that an air of mystery, a whiff of wildness and danger and disdain, a suggestion of wisdom and spirituality.

No surprise then that the house cat emerged as an iconic image for mid-20th century artists and designers, in applications ranging from feline fine arts to kitten kitsch.

During that era, serious artists and commercial ones alike adopted the 'cool cat' look—smooth, often black, but the Siamese cat too was popular. There was also a bit of the hepcat, whose beatnik-jazz scene was spreading mainstream.

The domestic feline of the mid-century, it appeared, had become, well, a distinguished 'sophisticat' of the arts world.

Sophisticats
Cat creation by Shag: 'Cocktail Cats II," from 2020.

But what role did their household rival, the dog, play in mid-mod design? Not much—except for the occasional French poodle. Dogs were just too roll-on-my-back-scratch-my-belly crude.

The resurgence of interest in mid-century design that began in the 1990s also led to a resurgence of mid-century modern cats. Several artists today specialize in nostalgic retro felines, indebted in varying degrees to a Los Angeles area artist who pioneered the neo-mid-century modern style—Shag.

Shag, whose real name is Josh Agle, hit big with his art just as the revival was being born. Many of his paintings feature a mysterious-looking black cat, which has become one of his signatures and has been copied by others.

"The thing that inspired the cats in my own art was a bubble-bath bottle from my childhood. I had a vague memory of what it looked like, and that memory is what I used to model the cats in my art," Agle says.

"Years later, when I actually saw one of the bubble-bath bottles, I realized my memory of it was quite different. It's still a cool object."

  Sophisticats
Nostalgic retro felines still play a big part in Shag's art world today, as evidenced by 'Sam II' (left), which brings together pop artist Andy Warhol in his 1960s prime and the timeless image of Sam the Cat, Siamese variety.
 

Asked why cats were so popular in mid-century times, Agle cites "the aesthetics of a cat. It's feminine and mysterious."

Unlike dogs, which come in all shapes and sizes, cats provide a readily identifiable form. "You draw the pointy ears, the long tail, the nose and the whiskers—and people immediately know it's a cat," Agle says.

"In the late 1950s and early '60s the cat became sleeker in popular culture," he says. Agle contrasts the cool '50s cat with Tom, the cat from the 'Tom and Jerry' cartoons, which originated in the 1940s. "Tom is kind of clumsy. He's definitely not streamlined and sleek."

Cats evolved with the times, Agle says, as "styles, fashion, clothes got sleeker, more slim, more form fitting."

Among the qualities that set Shag's art apart is his narrative sense. There is always interaction between his characters. "If there is a cat in my paintings, it's tied to a woman. It's almost like a witch would have a familiar," Agle says, referring to the belief that witches were often accompanied by spirits in the form of animals.

  Sophisticats
Josh Agle AKA Shag, here with a cocktail salute, was a player integral to the return of mid-century modern design in the 1990s.
 

He adds, "A cat somehow increases a woman's magic."

Barbara Bullington, a North Carolina artist whose oeuvre includes a wide selection of cats, says felines add complexity to clean-lined designs.