In keeping with Pop Art’s appropriation of popular, easily accessible, and everyday imagery, Flowers’s source material is a photograph of hibiscus blossoms from the June 1964 issue of Modern Photography magazine. Warhol took artistic liberty with this photograph, isolating just four of the original seven flowers in a tighter composition, which he then transferred onto acetate and polarized the tonal range in order to increase sharpness and clarity. 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 oeuvre; hibiscuses signify beauty, but perhaps more importantly, also symbolize the fleeting nature of fame or personal glory, a 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 as a way for the artist to engage directly in the art historical tradition of still-life painting. Gerard Malanga notes: “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, rejecting traditional modes of representation and instead portraying this subject through the lens of contemporary Pop Art. Rather than employ shading and depth, Warhol flattens the image in unmodulated swaths of dazzling green and white. Four fresh hibiscus flowers bloom against the emerald backdrop, their lush petals pushing against the constraints of the strict square composition. The present work is among the more intimate iterations of this series, measuring just 24 by 24 inches. Of this gem-like scale, the editors of Warhol’s catalogue raisonné write: “Although the orientations of the three 82-inch paintings exhibited at Castelli varied, the different orientations among the twenty-eight 24-inch canvases on the panel offered the most striking early indication that their orientation was variable." (Georg Frei, Neil Printz, and Sally King-Nero, eds., The Andy Warhol Catalogue Raisonné: Paintings and Sculptures, Vol. 2A, 1964-1969, New York, 2004, p. 302)
The mundane and hackneyed image of the flower, so synthetically rendered, provides no narrative or content; it is anti-didactic, egalitarian, and easily accessible, which has led to its proliferation as such a potent symbol of an entire artistic moment. And yet, despite the apparent decorative and cheerful quality of Flowers, the motif is fraught with a mortality and morbidity that permeates the artist’s entire corpus. 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) Bold, brash, bright and dazzling, Andy Warhol’s Flowers endures as a vibrant moniker for the artist, one that epitomizes the fragility of life and intangible transience of fame.
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