Executed in 1965, Andy Warhol’s Flowers stems from the series of 22-inch square canvases that the artist created in the wake of his legendary sell-out exhibition of flower paintings at Leo Castelli’s New York gallery the previous year. Standing as the culmination of Warhol’s painterly development during the 1960s, the Flowers mark a pivotal moment within the artist’s early oeuvre. Having established himself as a leading figure within the Pop Art movement, Warhol began to look outside the pantheon of brand names and celebrities that had previously dominated his output, choosing instead to lavish his attention on the unknown and innocuous. Warhol’s Flowers were in effect the last paintings he made in the 1960s before embracing wider forms of expression including. Created shortly after his Death and Disaster series, the bright, joyful banality of the Flower paintings is underpinned by the same macabre pessimism that drove his initial fascination with themes of corruption and fame. Operating as a kind of funereal coda to his early practice, they represent a disarming extension of Warhol’s bleak vision into the natural world. As John Coplans has written, “What is incredible about the best of the flower paintings is that they present a distillation of much of the strength of Warhol’s art—the flash of beauty that suddenly becomes tragic under the viewer’s gaze” (J. Coplans, Andy Warhol, Pasadena 1970, p. 52).
Warhol’s Flowers derived from a color photograph of hibiscus blossoms that appeared in a two page spread of the June 1964 issue of Modern Photography. The photograph, taken by the magazine’s editor Patricia Caulfield, had been used to illustrate an article on a Kodak color processor designed for amateurs. As Michael Lobel argues, “The magazine layout already suggests the blossoms were ripe for Warholian plucking, as one side of the foldout featured four variants of the image, the slight color differences between them reminiscent of the repetition he had embraced in his Pop practice” (M. Lobel, “In Transition: Warhol’s Flowers,” in Andy Warhol Flowers, exh. cat., Eykyn Maclean, New York, 2012, n.p.). Warhol’s friend, the curator Henry Geldzahler, reportedly drew the artist’s attention to the image as an alternative to his increasingly dark subject matter. As he recalls, “I looked around the studio and it was all Marilyn and disasters and death. I said, “Andy, maybe it’s enough death now” He said, “What do you mean?” I said, “Well, how about this?” I opened a magazine to four flowers” (H. Geldzahler, quoted in unpublished interview with J. Stein, 1973, Geldzahler Papers, Beinecke Library). It was actually seven flowers, and was subsequently subjected to Warhol’s multiple strategies of manipulation and appropriation to produce the iconic four-flower configuration that defines the series.
The square format of the paintings held a particular appeal for Warhol, allowing the work to be rotated and flipped at will. As the artist explained, “I like painting on a square because you don’t have to decide whether it should be longer-longer or shorter-shorter or longer-shorter: it’s just a square” (A. Warhol, quoted in D. Bourdon, Warhol, New York 1989, p. 191). In addition to cropping the original image, Warhol deliberately shifted the placement of one of the flowers in order to fit within the boundaries of his new square format, as well as altering the interiors of the flowers by transferring their internal silhouettes. He also asked his assistant Billy Linich “to run the photo repeatedly through the Factory’s new photostat machine –“a dozen times, at least,” said Billy, to flatten out the blossoms, removing their definition, the shadow that lent the photo its illusion of three-dimensionality. “He didn’t want it to look like a photo at all. He just wanted the shape, the basic outline, of the flowers”’ (T. Sherman and D. Dalton, Pop: The Genius of Andy Warhol, New York 2009, p. 247). Flattening color and form in this way allowed Warhol to produce some of the most abstract images of his early oeuvre, anticipating the Shadow and Camouflage works of the late 1970s and 1980s. For Warhol, who had grown up under the glare of Abstract Expressionism, the deliberately flat vacancy of the Flower paintings presented an alternative to the movement’s insistence on the transcendental nature of painting. The abstracted, manufactured appearance of these works, with their deliberately unnatural cosmetic colouring, emphasizes their status as a commercial, mass-produced commodity, undermining the romanticism and pantheist sense of wonder usually associated with the art-historical genre of flower painting. In this regard, Warhol’s Flowers echo his portraits of other mass-produced beauties--Marilyn and Liz, Elvis and Marlon—extending Warhol’s synthetic vision of the universe into the realm of nature.
Having shifted between themes of commerce and celebrity to those of death and disaster during the early 1960s, the Flower paintings may be seen as a synthesis of both strands, transforming nature into kitsch and professing the disturbing mechanical under-side of popular taste. Warhol’s assistant Ronnie Cutrone recalled that whilst many people responded to the Flower paintings as bright, playful works that somehow anticipated the liberating values of the flower-power movement, those closest to the artist were all too aware of their darker side. As he explains, “The Marilyn paintings are about life and death and the Flowers are with their black, menacing background … We kids—Andy used to call everyone a ‘kid’ until they were eighty-five years old—all knew about that. Lou Reed, Silver George Milloway, Ondine, and me—we all knew the dark side of those Flowers. Don’t forget, at that time, there was flower power and flower children. We were the roots, the dark roots of that whole movement. None of us were hippies or flower children. Instead, we used to goof on it. We were into black leather and vinyl and whips and S&M and shooting up and speed. There was nothing flower power about that. So when Warhol and that whole scene made Flowers, it reflected the urban, dark, death side of that whole movement. And as decorative art, it’s pretty dense. There is a lot of depth in there ... You have this shadowy dark grass, which is not pretty, and then you have these big, wonderful, brightly colored flowers. It was always that juxtaposition that appears in his art again and again that I particularly love” (R. Cutrone, quoted in, J. O’ Connor and B. Liu, Unseen Warhol, New York 1996, p. 61).
Andy Warhol (1928-1987)
WORKS FROM THE COLLECTION OF ILEANA SONNABEND AND THE ESTATE OF NINA CASTELLI SUNDELL
Andy Warhol , 1960s, Paintings, United States of America, Post War
New York, Elkyn Maclean, Andy Warhol Flowers, November-December 2012, no. 23 (illustrated in color).
POST-WAR & CONTEMPORARY ART
each: 22 x 22 in. (55.9 x 55.9 cm.) overall: 22 x 44 in. (55.9 x 111.7 cm.)
G. Frei and N. Printz (eds.), The Andy Warhol Catalogue Raisonné of Paintings and Sculptures, 1964-1969, vol. 2B, New York, 2004, pp. 50 and 56-57, no. 1505 (illustrated in color) and no. 1502 (illustrated in color).
Ileana Sonnabend, Paris
Gian Enzo Sperone, Turin
Galleria Bertesca, Genoa
The Estate of Ileana Sonnabend, New York
By descent to the present owner
Paul Warhola Family, acquired directly from the artist
Anon. sale; Christie's, New York, 4 November 1987, lot 222
The Estate of Ileana Sonnabend, New York, acquired at the above sale
By descent to the present owner