Obituary: Bob Cato
Thursday 15 April 1999
It was a world of Martini lunches, sharp suits, chain-smoking soirees and a cultural savvy which today's designers look back on with nostalgia. Cato was the ultimate "sophisticat", with the emphasis on "cat": an expert on modern jazz and James Joyce, a fabled cook, sculptor, photographer and collagist.
Born in New Orleans in 1923 to a Cuban emigree mother and business executive father, Cato moved with his family when he was 15 to Mexico City, where he began to study art with Jose Clemente Orozco and Pablo O'Higgins. During the Second World War, Cato was imprisoned as a conscientious objector, and then moved to Chicago to study with Lszl Moholy-Nagy.
In 1947 he went to work for Alexey Brodovitch, the legendary art director at Harper's Bazaar, and one of most influential and revered figures in his field. As well as helping him at Harper's, Cato also assisted with the famous classes Brodovitch gave at the New School for Social Research. As Cato wrote for the catalogue of the 1972 show "Brodovitch and his Influence" at the Smithsonian in Washington,
I became Alexey's "Man Friday" and all-round assistant in New York. I drove his car, worked at Junior Bazaar and "Big" Bazaar, cooked for him, kept the attendance books at school, did the shopping and generally kept things together for him and Mrs. B. I had been involved with the jazz scene for many years and it gave Alexey a great deal of pleasure to play host to my many musician friends, who would drop by to talk and drink Scotch with us.
Brodovitch was a strong influence on the young Cato, as on many designers of the period. As his mentor did, so Cato took numerous photographs of dancers, including a renowned series of Paul Taylor used as the cover for Dance Observer in 1960. Two of Cato's record covers were included in the Smithsonian Brodovitch show: Simon & Garfunkel, a printed offset collage (Columbia Records, 1968); and his colour photograph of Miles Davis used for the cover of Miles (United Artists Records, 1970). In 1960 Cato joined CBS-Columbia Records as art director and vice- president of creative services, a job he held for a decade.
It was here that he created record covers for artists ranging from Leonard Bernstein to the jazzer Charles Lloyd, for albums including Bob Dylan's Basement Tapes, Moondog Matinee by The Band and From Every Stage by Joan Baez.
Cato was willing to experiment in any direction, as recounted in Al Kooper's memoir Backstage Passes and Backstabbing Bastards, published earlier this year. For a 1967 Blood, Sweat and Tears record Cato photographed the band with little children in their laps, each child's face replaced by the face of the person whose lap they occupied and entitled it Child is Father to the Man. For the 1968 double-set Live Adventures of Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper, Kooper recounts that "I called Bob Cato the CBS art director at home to ask if Norman Rockwell could do the cover." Cato contacted Rockwell and the cover was thus created.
One of Cato's most infamous choices was of Robert Crumb illustrations for Janis Joplin's Cheap Thrills (1968). The recent Joplin bio by Alice Echols explains this had not been the original conception:
Columbia's art director had planned a different cover, a photo of the group in bed in a hippie crash pad. The band arrived and discovered a bedroom done up in pink frills - like no hippie pad they'd been in. "Let's trash it, boys," Janis declared, and they did. The shot of them in bed naked, the bed covers pulled up only to their waists, was junked in favor of Crumb's caricatures.
Crumb himself was excited by the project but stated; "When I meet Janis I want to be able to pinch her tit." Months later they met at a party and Crumb grabbed her breast. Joplin looked at him and said, "Oh honey!"
Cato worked with artists such as Robert Rauschenberg and Warhol as well as cartoonists and psychedelic illustrators, although he also often shot the cover work himself, as with Miles. Cato won Grammy awards for two cover designs, Barbra Streisand's People (1964) and Bob Dylan's Greatest Hits (1967), as well as the President's Merit Award in 1997. Cato's importance in turning record cover design into an established art form cannot be underestimated. Philip Meggs' definitive History of Graphic Design (1998) has this to say:
The design staff of CBS Records operated at the forefront of the graphic interpretation of music. Conceptual image making emerged as a significant direction in album design during the early 1960s, after Bob Cato became head of the Creative Services department . . . photographs of musicians performing and portraits of composers yielded to more symbolic and conceptual images.
Having set up his own design company, Squadra Gallileo Inc, Cato also designed books on everyone from Garbo, Swanson, Dietrich and Corbusier to the painter Oscar de Mejo and the collected poetry of Aime Cesaire, as well as a series on Life photographers. Cato was often featured on the front page in billing as large as the author or illustrator, one of his most sumptuous works being Celebrating the Negative (1994), a collection of photo negatives published by Arcade.
In 1975 Macmillan published The Great Garlic Cookbook by Cato and Barbara Friedlander. As the latter was vegetarian Cato created and tested all the meat, fish and poultry dishes, their titles revealing his range of friends: "Spiedini for Leo Lionni" (the famed children's book illustrator), "A Hot Shot for Bob Dylan", "Topolski's Garlic and Paprika Pork Loin" and "Shrimp and Mushroom Appetizer for Joel Grey".
Cato's love of modern literature culminated in one of his finest achievements, Joyce Images (1994), drawings and photographs compiled by Cato and Greg Vitiello with an introduction by Anthony Burgess. This book featured a striking jacket design and illustration of Joyce by Cato as well as an acknowledgement thanking his mother, ". . . who read to him from Ulysses when he was just eight years old and who gave him a 1926 edition of the book which he still has."
Bob Cato, art director, photographer and artist: born New Orleans 1923; died New York 19 March 1999.
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