Announcing one of the most indisputably iconic images of Pop Art on a quite astounding scale, Andy Warhol's immense Ten-Foot Flowers of 1967 utterly consumes our field of vision and is the artist's monumental realization of a conceptually infinite art. Composed upon a canvas nearly one hundred square feet in size, this painting was conceived specifically for his first retrospective exhibition in Europe and was always intended for a setting of museum eminence. Thus it is no surprise that today other works of the cycle are held in the most prestigious institution collections. It is one of just eleven Flower paintings in this ten by ten foot format, others being housed in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; The Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Menil Collection, Houston; the Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego; the Hamburger Bahnhof, Berlin, Collection Marx; the Kunstmuseum Basel; Moderna Museet, Stockholm; and the Museu Colecção Berardo, Lisbon. The present painting belongs to the ten works in this cycle that were created for Warhol's inaugural European survey show, held at Moderna Museet, Stockholm in 1968. Through the remaining year, this work travelled to the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam; the Kunsthalle Bern; the Kunstnernes Hus, Oslo; and was presented alongside Karl Ströher's collection at the Nationalgalerie Berlin in 1969, where it hung edge to edge with three other works in a vast twenty by twenty foot tableau suspended from the ceiling of the cavernous space, designed by Mies van der Rohe. Created after Warhol had publicly declared his increasing devotion to filmmaking, Ten-Foot Flowers broadcasts itself on the register of the cinema screen. In scale, composition, execution and conceptual ambition it is, quite simply, the fully-resolved quintessence of Pop Art and its presentation here represents a moment of exceptional rarity.
Through the decades since the 1960s Warhol's Flower paintings have pervaded a global consciousness as the totemic standard of classic American Pop; their imagery acting as talismanic metaphor for a generation that changed not only artistic but also social and political topographies in a supremely transformative decade. Unlike the artist's legendary subjects of that period concerned principally with consumerism, celebrity, death and disasters, the Flower corpus was a significant departure to the more abstract; not only in terms of aesthetic character but also of philosophical import. While the paintings that immediately preceded the Flowers typically represented narrative fact, recorded through the objectivity of the camera lens and re-contextualized through the artist's impassionate silkscreen, this series re-presents an ultimately quotidian subject devoid of context. There is no story behind these petals of a spectacular rise to fame or untimely death; no self-evident critique of the agents of celebrity culture or the manipulation of collective psychology through the engines of mass-media. Even the Dollar Bills and Campbell's Soup Can pictures that pioneered his concept of endlessly proliferating imagery were wedded to the specific cultural inheritance of the American Dream and consumer culture. With the indeterminate content of the Flowers, Warhol invited, for the first time, a far greater degree of interpretation, questioning and reflection from the spectator, thereby instituting a far grander range of individual subjective response. Indeed, it is precisely due to the conceptual accessibility of the anti-didactic and egalitarian imagery of the Flowers that it has proliferated as such a potent symbol of an entire artistic movement. It had been during an exhibition of Flower paintings in Paris in 1965 (at the Galerie Ileana Sonnabend) that Warhol announced that he was "retiring from painting" and the fact that he chose the Flowers as principal motif for the 1968 Stockholm retrospective serves as resounding testament to the powerful significance he invested in these works as concluding denouement of his oeuvre to that date (Rainer Crone, Andy Warhol, New York, 1970, p. 30).
The source image for Ten-Foot Flowers originated in a series of color photographs of seven hibiscus blossoms printed in the June 1964 issue of Modern Photography, taken by editor Patricia Caulfield to demonstrate the varying visual effects of different exposure times and filter settings. A contradictory account was given by Warhol's first major chronicler, Rainer Crone, who wrote in 1970 that the source image was taken from a woman's magazine where it was reproduced as the second prize in a contest for the best snapshot taken by a housewife (Rainer Crone, Andy Warhol, New York, 1970, p. 30). That this information most likely reached Crone from the artist himself invites intriguing speculation about Warhol's attitude towards the narratives surrounding the creation of his own art, or was perhaps linked to Caulfield's legal pursuit of Warhol for infringement of copyright after he created the Flower series. Nevertheless, the seriality of the images in Modern Photography undoubtedly appealed to Warhol's acute sensitivity to image repetition, although rather than transfer the entire page of the magazine with four rectangular images of flowers, he isolated and cropped a square composition that included four flowers from one of the reproduced photos. This meant that ultimately the artist would control the terms of replication, variation and manipulation in his paintings more closely in multi-panel arrangements. This crop was then transferred onto acetate and its tonal range polarized to increase sharpness and provide the optimum template for the silkscreen to be made. Warhol chose the square format because of its refutation of a fixed orientation and the four possible compositional options available. Of course, this also perfectly suited the variable alignment of the flowers themselves, which had been shot on film from an overhead perspective and could hence be viewed any way up. "I like painting on a square," he explained, "because you don't have to decide whether it should be longer-longer or shorter-shorter or longer-shorter: it's just a square." (David Bourdon, Warhol, New York, 1989, p. 191).
Ten-Foot Flowers also reflects the degree to which Warhol had honed and refined the screen-printing process by this stage of his career. Of course he had been first attracted to this method by the affinity of the silkscreen with the mass-media printing aesthetic of consumer culture and by its anonymous, luxuriously slick facture which annulled the individual hand of the artist. By removing himself from the creative equation, Warhol sought to communicate more directly with the established popular currency that blended high and low culture imagery. As he famously stated, "The reason I'm painting this way is because I want to be a machine." (Exh. Cat., Stockholm, Moderna Museet, Andy Warhol, 1968, n.p.). However, as the defining signature trait of the Andy Warhol canon, even by 1967 this method itself became a subject for Warhol to interrogate. The ten foot Flowers were made using three screens that divided the image horizontally and the present work, exhibiting the most radical registration of screens among any of the paintings in this size, clearly reveals the boundaries of each template. Despite having mastered the technique and rehearsed the implementation of this imagery countless times over several years for the smaller Flower paintings, here Warhol reveals the terms of the screen's function and lays bare his process of creation to the viewer. That the distinguished chronicler of the artist's oeuvre Rainer Crone positioned this canvas as the last of the ten foot series (and indeed the final painting recorded in his 1970 catalogue raisonné) accords with its status as the most compositionally daring and experimental of the cycle.
Warhol's enlistment of color for the Flower paintings is also a remarkable feature of these works, having selected determinedly anti-naturalistic hues, applied in a spectrum of brilliant fluorescent and acrylic paint. Aside from this painting and two other works in the ten foot cycle - the Berlin and Menil Collection examples - the others are uniformly comprised of just one solid background color overlaid with the silkscreen schema of the flowers. This Ten-Foot Flowers is unique inasmuch as the four white flowers are reveals of the primer ground, having been masked over before the application of phthalo green acrylic paint and the subsequent impression of the dark blue-purple silkscreen. Apart from the Moderna Museet work with its black ground, the other eight works in the 1968 Stockholm exhibition were silkscreened in black ink. Thus the coloristic complexity of the present painting augments the assured compositional innovation of its screening to position it as perhaps the most artistically sophisticated of the cycle.
In the summer of 1964 Warhol decided to leave the representation of the Stable Gallery and to join that of Leo Castelli, the grand impresario of the Pop Art movement in New York. In the intervening period the artist focused on preparing work for his inaugural show at Castelli's scheduled for November of that year. As epitomized by his presentation of 32 Campbell's Soup Cans at the Ferus Gallery in July 1962, the Elvis and Silver Liz shows, again at Ferus, in September 1963, the Death paintings at Galerie Ileana Sonnabend in January 1964 and the Box sculptures at Stable in April 1964, Warhol characteristically preferred to dedicate his gallery exhibitions to a single theme, subject or sequence. Hence his move to Castelli and the prospect of a new show proved the trigger for a new coherent body of work, Flowers. In the gallery installation the canvases perfectly exploited the full curatorial potential of the multiple orientations: Warhol arranged twenty-eight of the twenty-four inch Flowers like tesserae in four rows of seven along the panel that obscured the gallery's windows on East 77th Street. In combination the paintings elicited subtle variances and rhythmic patterns across the matrix of their squares: the curvilinear forms of the quasi-abstract petals competing with the rectilinear grid-like structure created by the gaps between the canvases. The show met with instantaneous success and the paintings quickly sold out.
When he was presented with the opportunity to show new work at the Galerie Ileana Sonnabend in Paris, opening in May 1965, Warhol immediately set about creating new Flower canvases while the Castelli show was still open. In Paris, as in New York, the paintings were presented in different sizes like tiles to fill their designated wall spaces. In this respect both these landmark exhibitions can be viewed as installations, continuing the underlying concept of the Ferus and Stable shows whereby works wrapped or filled their physical environment as manifestation of a total viewing experience. As Frei and Printz have succinctly explained, "Like his filmmaking, Warhol's practice of painting and sculpture arise from the same radical fantasy of omnipresent media." (Georg Frei and Neil Printz, eds., The Andy Warhol Catalogue Raisonné: Paintings and Sculptures 1964 - 1969, Vol. 02B, New York, 2004, p. 26). Indeed, the role of filmmaking in Warhol's art is pertinent to the present work. In late 1963, Warhol had moved his studio to East 47th Street, a loft that was to become the infamous silver and aluminum-foil covered Factory. With this more expansive space, he was able to work on larger projects, creating series of works with assistants in assembly-line fashion. The newly spacious Factory allowed for a multitude of works to be in progress at the same time, and also facilitated Warhol's new endeavors in the realm of filmmaking. The distinctly filmic presence of Ten-Foot Flowers, filling the extent of our view as if issued from a film projector, can thus at least in part be attributed to its creation in the specific context of Warhol's expanding cinematography and extends the legacy of the total experience of the Castelli and Sonnabend exhibitions.
While the subject of flowers appears in one sense to be highly self-effacing, by selecting the disarmingly innocuous motif of tiny hibiscus blossoms, Warhol of course implicitly confronted the centuries-old art historical tradition of still-life painting: "With the Flowers, Andy was just trying a different subject matter. 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 in: David Dalton and David McCabe, A Year in the Life of Andy Warhol, New York, 2003, p. 74). Warhol's updated interpretation of this age-old motif, however, is consciously banal and synthetic. In the first instance he rejected the intricate and hierarchical compositions of the grand tradition of Still-Life painting in western Art History in favor of an overhead perspective which banishes the horizon and flattens and distorts the shape of each petal. Secondly, the complex color harmonies of that tradition, from Dutch still-lifes to Monet's water lilies, say, are abolished in favor of planar zones of flat unnatural color, rendered in artificial Day-Glo and fluorescent paints. As colorful and attractive as the Flowers paintings are to the eye, they nevertheless have a more subversive and subliminal reference to the presence of death in life, a constant theme throughout Warhol's output, even before Valerie Solanas entered the Factory and nearly killed him with a gun in 1968. From his images of Jackie Kennedy, Marilyn Monroe, suicides, car crashes, and electric chairs to the skulls and even self-portraits of his later career, the brevity of life frequently lingers under the acrylic and silkscreen ink of his canvases. Flowers are symbols of nature's fragile impermanence and the fugitive quality of beauty, as noted eloquently by John Coplans." What is incredible about the best of the flower paintings (especially the very large ones) 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. The garish and brilliantly colored flowers always gravitate toward the surrounding blackness and finally end in a sea of morbidity. No matter how much one wishes these flowers to remain beautiful they perish under one's gaze, as if haunted by death.'' (John Coplans, Andy Warhol, New York, 1978, p. 52).
After the Death and Disaster series of 1962 - 1963, which depicted sensational images of electric chairs, suicides and horrendous car crashes, the motif of four brightly blooming hibiscus flowers was almost anodyne, a palliative to the horror an violence of previous imagery. However despite its apparent decorative quality, which doubtless appealed to Warhol in his program to make a truly popular art form, the motif is laced with the preoccupation with mortality that permeates his entire oeuvre. According to Heiner Bastian, a former owner of the current work, Warhol's series of Flowers create "a virtual, painful stillness. Since they seemingly only live on the surface, in the stasis of their coloration, they also initiate only the one metamorphosis which is a fundamental tenet of Warhol's work: moments in a notion of transience. The flower pictures were for Everyman, they embodied Warhol's power of concretization, the shortest possible route to stylisation, both open to psychological interpretation and an ephemeral symbol. But the flowers...were also to be read as metaphors for the flowers of death. Warhol's Flowers resist every philosophical transfiguration as effectively as the pictures of disasters and catastrophes which they now seem ever closer to." (Exh. Cat., Berlin, Neue Nationalgalerie; London, Tate Modern, Andy Warhol: Retrospective, 2002, p. 33). Forever striving to capture the intangible transience of fame, the motif of the flourishing hibiscus serves as a metaphor for the fleeting transience of celebrity. Exuberant now, but soon to perish, the flower can also be seen on a more generic level as an allegory for the frailty and fragility of life.
Acrylic, silkscreen ink, and pencil on canvas
Stockholm, Moderna Museet; Amsterdam, Stedelijk Museum; Bern, Kunsthalle Bern (as 12 Environments); Oslo, Kunsthernes Hus; Berlin, Neue Nationalgalerie, Andy Warhol, February 1968 - April 1969
Corpus Christi, Art Museum of South Texas, Johns, Stella, Warhol, October - November, 1972, p. 37, illustrated
Milwaukee, Milwaukee Art Museum; Houston, Contemporary Arts Museum, Warhol - Beuys - Polke, June - November 1987, cat. no. 12, p. 34, illustrated
New York, Museum of Modern Art; Chicago, Art Institute of Chicago; London, Hayward Gallery; Cologne, Museum Ludwig; Venice, Palazzo Grassi; Paris, Centre Georges Pompidou, Andy Warhol: A Retrospective, February 1989 - September 1990, cat. no. 309, p. 298, illustrated in color
Berlin, Neue Nationalgalerie; London, Tate Modern, Andy Warhol: A Retrospective, October 2001 - April 2002, cat. no. 168, p. 229, illustrated in color
114 1/2 x 114 1/2 in. 290.9 x 290.9 cm.
Rainer Crone, Andy Warhol, New York, 1970, no. 600
Rainer Crone, Das Bildnerische Werk Andy Warhols, Berlin, 1976, no. 953
Heiner Bastian, Andy Warhol: Silkscreens from the Sixties, Munich, 1990, pl. 61, illustrated in color
Albert Boatto, "Warhol," Art e Dossier, no. 105, October 1995, p. 18, illustrated in color
Georg Frei and Neil Printz, eds., The Andy Warhol Catalogue Raisonné: Paintings and Sculptures 1964 - 1969, Vol. 02B, New York, 2004, cat. no. 2054, p. 362, illustrated in color and fig. no. 129, p. 364 illustrated (as exhibited at Nationalgalerie, Berlin, 1968)
Leo Castelli Gallery, New York (on consignment, LC# 913)
The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, New York
Heiner Bastian, Berlin
Acquired by the present owner from the above