'Always somewhat unearthly, Warhol became in the 1960's a speechless and rather terrifying oracle. He made visible what was happening in some part to us all.' (Calvin Tomkins, 'Raggedy Andy' cited in Andy Warhol, exh. cat. Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven 1970, p. 10.)
The Flower paintings that Andy Warhol created in the summer of 1964 for his first show at the Castelli Gallery in New York form the culmination of his painterly development during the early 1960s. Sunny, brightly coloured, vacant, pretty and banal, these popular paintings are also among the most dark and pessimistic works of Warhol's entire oeuvre. Directly preceded by his Death and Disaster series of paintings Warhol's decision to fill Castelli's gallery with flowers had as much to do with transforming the gallery into a funeral parlour as it did with mimicking the joyful banality of a flower shop. Warhol's Flowers were in effect the last paintings Warhol made in the sixties before embracing wider forms of expression. They form a bridge between painting and installation - a tendency that had first appeared in Warhol's work with his exhibition of Brillo Boxes at the Stable Gallery in May 1964 and which would culminate in 1966 with the artist's almost complete abandonment of painting for his second show at Castelli's in the form of his Cow Wallpaper and Silver Balloons. Not long after this exhibition, Warhol famously declared, ' I don't paint anymore, I gave it up about a year ago and just do movies now'. (Interview with Gretchen Berg, Cahiers du Cinéma, 10 May 1967, p. 39).
This 48 inch square four-colour flower painting is one of the series of 'four-foot' flower paintings that Warhol made between July and August 1964 in preparation for his first show at Castelli's. The flowers on the paintings were derived from a colour photograph of hibiscus blossoms that appeared in a two page spread of the June 1964 issue of Modern Photography which had been used to illustrate an article on a Kodak colour processor designed for amateurs. Wrongly and repeatedly identified by homophobic critics as 'pansies', Warhol's four hibiscus flower heads have been cropped from the original image and through the repositioning of one of the flowers - by rotating it through 180 degrees - transcribed by Warhol into a more pattern-like square format.
The square format of the paintings particularly satisfied Warhol because its regular shape allowed the flower paintings to be hung 'any side up.' 'I like painting on a square', he later said, 'because you don't have to decide whether it should be longer-longer or shorter-shorter or longer-shorter: it's just a square,' Warhol said. (Andy Warhol cited in D. Bourdon, Warhol, New York 1989, p. 191.) In addition to its repositioning in a square-format Warhol flattened the original image by translating the background - through the silkscreen medium - into a night-sight-like two-tone image of the grass undergrowth. Flattening colour and form in this way generated what is probably the most abstract of all of Warhol's 1960s images and indeed a certain relishing of the abstract painterliness of his creation can be seen in these works in much the same way as it later appears in his Shadow paintings of the late 1970s. Warhol had, of course, developed as an artist under the shadow of the Abstract Expressionists, whose heady blend of machismo, tortuous soul-searching and insistence on painterly gesture as a means of inner expression was anathema to him. Concerned throughout his life that such bombast actually represented the 'real' painting, Warhol often revelled in the purely abstract nature of his art, greatly enjoying placing empty monochrome canvases next to his image-laden ones and, as in his Flowers, in the flat vacancy of monochrome colour.
In the selection of colour for his flowers, Warhol deliberately chose unnatural-looking hues of brilliant synthetic colour. Often referred to as Day-glo or cosmetic colouring, the clearly man-made splashes of vibrant colour that form the flowers of his pictures seem to mock the gestural splashes of abstract expressionist painting as much as they do the romanticism and pantheist sense of wonder usually associated the art historical genre of flower painting. These paintings also look like an attack on nature as if such natural wonder has here been subordinated and synthesised by a simple mechanical process. The abstract manufactured look of Warhol's Flowers emphasizes both their commercial application as a saleable commodity and the mass-produceable process by which these natural symbols of beauty have come into being. In this, these works echo his portraits of other mass-produced beauties such as Marilyn and Liz, Elvis and Marlon. They are an extension of Warhol's synthetic vision of the universe into the realm of nature.
Having moved in his use of imagery from the supermarket to celebrity and its flip-side in disaster, the flower paintings extract the kitsch and the plastic from man's vision of natural beauty and present the mechanical under-side of popular taste. At the time of the Castelli show in 1964, Warhol's Flowers were considered a far happier subject and perhaps an antidote to his recent death and disaster paintings which, importantly for Warhol, he had been unable to sell. At the Flowers show which ran from September to December 1964, Castelli was inundated with orders for flower-paintings of all sizes from the large two-flower works through the eight-foot, four-foot, two-foot and smaller versions and the whole exhibition rapidly sold out. In retrospect these works can be clearly seen as a consequence and a progression from Warhol's increasingly dark earlier work dealing with death, perhaps even as a kind of funereal coda to it as well as a frightening extension of Warhol's bleak vision into the realm of the natural world. As Warhol's assistant Ronnie Cutrone recalled of these works, while many people enjoyed the Flower paintings as happy-go-lucky works that somehow anticipated the liberating values of the flower-power movement, he and many of those closer to Warhol at this time responded to their darker side.
'A lot of Andy's work revolves around that subject. The Marilyn paintings are about life and death and the Flowers are with their black, menacing background. Not the watercolor Flowers - there is nothing menacing about those flowers at all. I'm talking about the first Flowers from 1964 - they are a bit menacing. 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.' (Ronnie Cutrone cited in, J. O' Connor and B. Liu, Unseen Warhol, New York 1996, p. 61).
Synthetic polymer paint and silkscreen inks on canvas
Property from an Important American Collection
Signed 'Andy Warhol' and inscribed by Frederic Hughes 'I certify that this is an authentic painting by Andy Warhol completed by him in 1964, Frederic Hughes' (on the overlap)
Andy Warhol , 1960s, Paintings, canvas, Americas, miniature, Contemporary, flowers & plants
Humlebaek, Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Andy Warhol, September 1990-January 1991, no. 27.
48 x 48¼in. (122 x 122.5cm.)
G. Frei and N. Printz (eds.), Andy Warhol Catalogue Raisonné: Paintings and Sculptures 1964-1969, vol. 02A, London 2004, no. 1316 (illustrated in colour, p. 290).
Galerie Jens Faurschou, Copenhagen.
Ingemar Pousette, Stockholm.
Jan-Eric Löwenadler, Stockholm & New York.
Klabal Gallery, Minneapolis.
Acquired from the above by the present owner in 1992.