In keeping with Pop Art’s appropriation of popular, everyday imagery, Flowers is quoted from a photograph of seven hibiscus blossoms from the June 1964 issue of Modern Photography magazine. Rather than directly quote the entire page of the magazine, Warhol isolated four of the flowers in a more compressed crop, which he then transferred onto acetate and polarized the tonal range in order to increase sharpness. The original image accompanied an article about different Kodak processors and featured a glossy fold-out showing the same photograph, taken by executive editor Patricia Caulfield, repeated to illustrate chromatic variations corresponding to the different chemical processes, the repetitious nature of which no doubt appealed to Warhol’s particular interest in seriality. By 1965, Warhol was manufacturing up to eighty Flowers canvases per day, a tremendous feat in response to the heightened consumerist culture of the 1950s and 60s. The present work’s bright subject matter was a soothing relief from the unrelentingly morbid 1962-63 Death and Disaster series, in which the artist depicted photographs of car crashes, electric chairs, and suicides. Yet, the motif of the hibiscus is laden with the tragedy that permeates Warhol’s entire oeuvre. Hibiscuses signify beauty, and especially the fleeting nature of fame or personal glory, a symbolic meaning that would not have escaped Warhol. It was Henry Geldzahler, then assistant curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, who suggested to Warhol that he devote an entire series solely to flowers. In many ways, this focus on a single subject was a way for Warhol to engage directly in the art historical tradition of still-life painting. Gerard Malanga recalls: “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, A Year in the Life of Andy Warhol, New York, 2003, p. 74) Warhol, however, stamped his own brand on this centuries old tradition, foregoing hierarchical composition and tonal variation in favor of unmodulated swaths of dazzlingly bright candy colored ink. Four perfectly crisp cerulean flowers register sharply against the bright green background, their nearly abstracted petals blooming against the constraint of the strict square composition. Flowers is among the smaller iterations within this series, measuring just twenty-four by twenty-four inches, half the scale of his larger canvases that were exhibited in a show at Ileana Sonnabend in 1965. The technique of silk screening forestalled Warhol’s painterly gesture with a luxuriously slick surface bespeaking a conceptual emphasis on anonymity. Furthermore, unlike the Death and Disaster series, which inherently provided a narrative, albeit a grim one, Flowers ultimately and intentionally is devoid of content. The mundane, hackneyed image of the flower, so synthetically rendered, is anti-didactic and egalitarian, which has led to its proliferation as such a potent symbol of an entire artistic movement; however, John Coplans notes, “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. 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)
Despite the apparent decorative quality of Flowers, which doubtlessly appealed to Warhol in his effort to create truly popular art, the motif is laced with a preoccupation with mortality that permeates the artist’s entire oeuvre. Heiner Bastian writes: “[Warhol’s 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 (and travelling), Andy Warhol: Retrospective, 2002, p. 33) Forever striving to capture the intangible transience of fame, the blooming hibiscus signifies the fragility of life and ephemerality of fame, but endures as a vibrant and exuberant moniker for the artist.
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