Jubilantly rare in the unique colour adorning each flower, the present work is one of only two paintings in Warhol's immortal Flowers series boasting the tantalizing appeal of four distinct inks laid upon a black and white background. Executed between December 1964 and January 1965, it is also one of only six single 48" by 48" canvases created for Warhol's Flowers exhibition at the Galerie Ileana Sonnabend in Paris in May 1965. Fabricated while Leo Castelli Gallery's show Flowers – their debut – was selling out in New York, this work signifies a process of experimentation wherein Warhol pioneered and honed his craft, making revolutionary use of screen printing and establishing his Factory's hyper-productive parody of industrial mass culture. A unique window into Warhol's often deliberately obfuscated artistic process, the present work symbolically realises the quintessentially Warholian interests in mass production, the transience of fame, and high/low cultural transgression, while simultaneously acting as an archaeological clue to his technical refinement.
Gunter Sachs acquired Flowers in 1979 from Bruno Bischofberger, Warhol's main dealer since 1968 and co-founder of Interview Magazine. In 1971, it was through Bischofberger that Sachs became the second-ever patron to commission a portrait from Warhol: Gunter Sachs (1972), offered in this sale. Sachs met Warhol at the Cannes Film Festival in 1967, at the Bar Gorille at St. Tropez. Warhol spied him and Brigitte Bardot from across the room and introduced himself. Of course, the effortless charisma, athleticism and artistic flair exuded by Sachs' public persona – and his heady love affair with the world's most beautiful woman - rendered Sachs entirely the sort of personality to captivate Warhol. Once confessing "I became what you might call fascinated by certain people", Warhol attended the festivities at Cannes despite his film Chelsea Girls' rejection precisely to seek out socialites like Sachs who beckoned both as muses and patrons (the artist cited in: Andy Warhol, The Philosophy of Andy Warhol: From A to B and Back Again, New York 1975, p.27). Instantly affined by their aesthetic tastes for the erotic, remotely perfect female subject, and Sachs' growing expertise in Pop art, their friendship found expression in the legendary vernissage of Sachs' Hamburger Milchstrasse gallery in 1972. His inaugural foray as a gallerist, the show was also Warhol's first major European retrospective. Sachs infamously purchased roughly a third of this show to single-handedly compensate for the reticence of Hamburg's conservative glitterati, hiding his manoeuvre from Warhol. In following years, Sachs pursued further, outstanding pieces to complement this collection, and the present Flowers should be seen as one such acquisition.
Living in Paris from 1957, Sachs devotedly visited avant-garde galleries. It is therefore likely that he saw Warhol's breakthrough European exhibition at the Galerie Illeana Sonnabend in 1965, which advanced both the Flowers series and Warhol's entire oeuvre in significant ways. Whereas the 1964 Castelli Flowers, like Warhol's earlier Marilyn and Liz portraits of 1962-63, contained hand-painted colour applied around acetate stencils, the earliest Flowers for Sonnabend embody Warhol's push to obviate the artist's hand. Three of the six 48" by 48" Sonnabend canvases were partially spray-painted, before Warhol finally settled on silk screening every colour, as in the present work. This technique forestalled the artist's painterly gesture with a luxuriously slick facture bespeaking a conceptual emphasis on anonymity. Concurrently, Warhol omitted the green background of the Castelli Flowers, laying the blossoms and black foliage onto a ground of clean white primer. Not only did this decrease production time, it exaggerated the flowers' jewel-like vivacity, heightening the abstract and stylistic effect that so attracted Warhol to the theme. Wishing to formally communicate the single-minded pursuit of speed, the vast majority of Flowers exhibit only one or two colours, playfully imitating the banal look of cheap 1960s textiles. Given that Warhol achieved paces of eighty Flowers canvases per day at points in 1965, the colouristic diversity of the present work is highly unique.
In keeping with Pop's cannibalistic consumption of popular imagery, Flowers is derived from a photograph of seven hibiscus blossoms, appropriated by Warhol from the June 1964 issue of Modern Photography magazine. He cropped out three flowers and rotated the remaining four for a tighter composition. The image illustrated an article about different Kodak colour processors, which contained a glossy fold-out featuring the same photograph, taken by executive editor Patricia Caulfield, repeated to show colour variations corresponding to different chemical processes. This ready-made, serial format undoubtedly captured Warhol's attention. The Flowers' instant commercial success and canonisation as Pop icon, however, politicised Warhol's unlicensed use of Caulfield's photo. In a landmark case for Appropriation Art, Caulfield successfully sued Warhol in 1966, settling privately. This event drove Warhol to develop his photographic skills and produce his own source images, enhancing the importance of social connections to his art, but diminishing the subversive, appropriative early-Pop edge present in Flowers. In homage to Warhol's powerful, sometimes roguish interventions into mass visual culture, Elaine Sturtevant mimicked his processes, borrowing the Flowers screens to create derivative works that she exhibited in 1965. Warhol was delighted; years later, bombarded by questions about his artistic process, Warhol answered: "I don't know. Ask Elaine" (the artist cited in: Alexander Tolnay and Elaine Sturtevant, Sturtevant: Shifting Mental Structures, Ostfildern-Ruit 2002, p.11).
At first glance, the Flowers' cheery subject matter is psychically anodyne following Warhol's unrelentingly morbid 1962-63 Death and Disaster series, which depicted photographs of plane crashes, electric chairs and suicides; images sometimes sourced from archives of material deemed unpublishable for its gore. Yet the Flowers motif is laced with the tragedy that permeates Warhol's entire oeuvre. Voyeuristically apt in his renderings of fame's transience, Warhol doubtlessly appreciated the hibiscus's potential as a symbol for the beauty and brevity of life under public scrutiny. As ever, Warhol's motif reflected his personal obsessions, while tapping with eerie prescience into the contemporary cultural zeitgeist: one year after Warhol chose the flowers motif, Beat poet Allen Ginsberg would coin the term "Flower Power." At the forefront of New York's avant-garde taste, Warhol's Flowers visualises this nascent and hopeful movement, without forgetting Ginsberg's own hints at its underlying demons in the iconic poem In Back of the Real: "Yellow, yellow flower, and/ flower of industry/ tough spiky ugly flower...This is the flower of the World" (Allen Ginsberg, Howl and Other Poems, San Francisco 1956, p. 56).
The idea to devote a major series to flowers was suggested by Henry Geldzahler, then assistant curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. In part, Warhol was consciously engaging with the canon of still-life painting: "In a funny way, he was kind of repeating the history of art. It was like, now we're doing my Flower period! Like Monet's water lilies, Van Gogh's flowers, the genre" (Gerard Malanga cited in: David Dalton, A Year in the Life of Andy Warhol, New York 2003, p. 74). Warhol, however, dispensed with the hierarchical composition and meticulous tonal variation typical of the motif, favouring synthetic zones of flat colour. In this respect, Warhol's Flowers are best compared with Matisse's gouaches découpés (paper collages) of the 1940s. Once asked what he desired from life, Warhol answered: "I want to be like Matisse" (the artist cited in: Calvin Tomkins, Raggedy Andy" in: John Coplan, Andy Warhol, New York 1971). Undoubtedly, Matisse's prolific output and career-long assimilation of decorative imagery like wallpaper and textiles into the realm of oil paint offered an important aesthetic model. The fanciful yet minimalist assemblage of bright colours that characterises, for example, Snow Flowers (1951), speaks to Warhol's own nimble graphic hybridization of high and low cultural imagery.
At Sonnabend in 1965, Warhol hung the new 48" canvases at the gallery entrance as the visitors' first impression. Invoices reveal that Warhol's earliest Flowers silkscreens, purchased June 22, 1964, were 48" by 48"; in September Warhol achieved a professional watershed by consigning these pieces to the Leo Castelli Gallery, joining an elite sphere of Pop artists including Roy Lichtenstein and Robert Rauschenberg. Castelli subsequently consigned many magnitudes of Flowers, but the original 48" format memorialises Warhol's early success. At Sonnabend, few and large such canvases were in juxtaposition to a proliferation of smaller Flowers: whereas the littlest work at Castelli's show measured 24" by 24", the Flowers at Sonnabend were comparatively diminished, shrinking by increments to as little as 5" by 5". Warhol thereby established, within a single series, a metaphorical relationship between the exceptional, more monumental icon and its attending host of miniaturised, even talismanic imitations that underlies the contemporary reproduction of celebrity portraits in portable and cheap formats, and mirroring logic of brand-based consumption. Assigning each wall within the gallery a single canvas size, Warhol recombined the paintings like battalions of tesserae, eliciting subtle variances and rhythmic patterns across the matrix of square paintings. In its immersive ambition, this display impressively anticipated the turn towards installation and environmental art. Ground-breaking both in its content and its innovative installation, this exhibition profoundly impacted European critics, establishing Warhol as the foremost Pop Artist in Europe.
Acrylic, silkscreen ink and pencil on canvas
Paris, Galerie Ileana Sonnabend, Andy Warhol, 1965
Braunschweig, Kunstverein, Andy Warhol: Bilder, Grafik, Filme, 1973, no.3, illustrated
Hamburg, Kunstverein, Andy Warhol: Ich erkannte dafs alles, was ich tue, mit dem Ton zusammenhangt, 1987, no. 13, illustrated in colour
Lucerne, Kunstmuseum, Andy Warhol: Paintings 1960-1986, 1995, no. 34, illustrated in colour
Hamburg, Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe, Gunter Sachs - Retrospektive, 2003
Moscow, Museum Tsaritsyno, Gunter Sachs, 2009
122.3 by 121.8cm. 48 1/8 by 48in.
Georg Frei and Neil Printz, (Eds.), Andy Warhol Catalogue Raisonné: Paintings and Sculpture 1964-1969, Volume 2B, New York 2004, p. 30, no. 1466, illustrated in colour
Galerie Bruno Bischofberger, Zürich
Acquired directly from the above in 1979