Sublimely composed of four technicolor petals, immaculately registered on a brilliant green and black ground, Andy Warhol’s Flowers of 1964 encapsulates the indisputably iconic profile of Pop Art and represents the very essence of that artistic movement to which this artist is so indelibly integral. During the half century since their creation, Warhol's Flower paintings have pervaded our global consciousness as the totemic standard of classic American Pop; their imagery acting as a metaphor for a generation that changed not only artistic but also social and political topographies in a supremely transformative decade. Throughout 1964, Warhol’s life and career were a flurry of creative ferment and personal change, and his production of the Flower paintings has become the stuff of legend. In late 1963, Warhol had moved his studio to East 47th Street, a loft that was to become the infamous silver and aluminum-covered Factory. With this more expansive space, Warhol was able to work on larger projects, creating several series of works with assistants in assembly-line fashion, beginning with his box sculptures. Warhol’s last show with Eleanor Ward of the Stable Gallery was the controversial exhibition of these three-dimensional reproductions of commercial shipping cartons, which opened in April 1964. However, shortly thereafter Warhol left the Stable Gallery and joined with Leo Castelli, the grand impresario of the Pop Art movement in New York. 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 and Disaster 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 or subject, and during the summer of 1964 he created canvases in square formats measuring 82, 48 and 24 inches respectively, intended for an exhibition at Castelli’s gallery, opening in New York in November of that year.
Unlike Warhol’s other legendary subjects of the early 1960s, the Flower series was a significant departure towards the 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 consumerism. 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.
The source image for the 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 women'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 mechanical to be made. Warhol chose the square format because of the four possible orientations 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)
The Flowers also reflect the degree to which Warhol had refined the screen-printing process by this stage of his career. He was first attracted to this method by the affinity of the silkscreen with the mass-media printing aesthetic 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 new 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." (the artist cited in Exh. Cat., Stockholm, Moderna Museet, Andy Warhol, 1968, n. p.) Indeed, in a curatorial move that seemed to pay homage to the factory assembly line, Warhol arranged twenty-eight of the twenty-four inch Flower paintings that he exhibited at his first Castelli show 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.
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 quoted 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 are abolished in favor of planar zones of flat 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 shot him 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 and 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, 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 stylization, 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, 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.
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