With its four colorful blooms bursting forth from the surface of the canvas, Andy Warhol’s Flowers is one of the most iconic and admired images he ever produced. With his series of flower paintings Warhol skillfully marries together the old and the new; updating the venerable tradition of the floral still life by infusing it with vibrant Pop colors and executing it in his revolutionary signature silkscreen technique, a process that was still radical in 1964. But, as with Warhol’s best work, Flowers also has a darker, more melancholic quality to it. The brief nature of a flower’s life appealed to Warhol’s fascination with death and represented for him a very personal affinity with the temporary nature of life. As such, Flowers, is almost unique amongst the artist’s body of work in that in contains almost all the elements of his own very complex character.
Warhol was at the height of his creative powers when he conceived the Flowers series in the summer of 1964. Produced for the first exhibition with his new dealer, Leo Castelli, the show was an immediate success and sold out. The original idea for the series came from Henry Geldzahler, the curator of contemporary art at the Metropolitan Museum in New York; frustrated with the artist’s morbid obsession with death and having spent months working on his Death and Disaster series, Geldzahler suggested to Warhol that he try his hand at something different. He pointed to a photograph of flowers in Modern Photography magazine, an idea which Warhol, in his deadpan style, immediately seized upon as his subject.
As a motif, the image had numerous attractions for Warhol as in its purest sense, the photograph is superficial and above all enchantingly beautiful. The bold aesthetics of this particular image meant that it was also particularly suited to Warhol’s recent adoption of the silkscreen process. He had already declared that he wanted to be a ‘’machine and completely ‘remove’ himself from the artistic process. Although the silkscreen process allowed him to do this, Warhol’s role as an artist is still clearly visible in terms of composition and execution as the final version of the image that appears in the present lot is markedly different from the original photograph. In a move that is very characteristic of his sharp eye for visual detail, Warhol cropped the image to achieve the desired square format. In order for the flowers to fit within his new composition he had to rotate one of the original blossoms, as evidenced by the slight disruption in the background grass pattern. The square format also appealed to Warhol’s aesthetic as it distanced his work from the traditional orientation of the portrait or landscape shaped canvases. This new, square format denies the viewer a fixed way of looking at the work, giving instead four possible orientations.
Although inherently modern in terms of its execution, Flowers follows in the noble art-historical tradition of still life paintings. George Malanga, a close associate of Warhol’s who was directly involved in the development of the Flowers series recognized the irony of the situation. “With 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 were doing my Flower period! Like Monet’s water lilies, van Gogh’s flowers, the genre” (G. Malanga quoted in D. Dalton, A Year in the Life of Andy Warhol, London, 2003, p.74).
But for Warhol these images had a deeper resonance than mere aesthetics. Flowers was painted following his Death and Disaster paintings and, superficially at least, this new work—with its bright colors, visual vitality and apparent celebration of life—couldn’t be more different from his gruesome images of car crashes and suicides. Despite its outward beauty however the image also belies a darker side, an aspect that is accentuated by the particular use of the red and black color combination of the present example. The red color of the petals spills out across the black canvas is reminiscent of the pools of blood that were common in many of Warhol’s earlier canvases that featured car crashes and other acts of violence.
Regarding Warhol’s flowers the noted art critic of the New Yorker Peter Schjedahl wrote, “They are so goddamn beautiful. And so simple. And their glamour was so intense. What killed you, killed you, was the grainy black-and-white of the stems. That grainy look...was killer, and still is. I think it still hasn’t been acknowledged that the whole critical debate should have been over at that moment. Because these Flowers paintings had all the Kantian principles that Greenberg was pushing...The Flowers resolved all [those] formal issues...but with a realistic, not an abstract, image. And why not? Who bought it as a picture of flowers anyway? It was about the mediation...That’s why we reach for the word ‘genius.’ Genius is what goes, ‘That’s not a problem.’ He [Warhol] sees clearly. He just does it’” (P. Schjeldahl, quoted in T. Sherman and D. Dalton, POP: The Genius of Andy Warhol, New York, 2009, pp. 236-237). Warhol spent much of his career striving to capture on canvas the fleeting nature of both fame and life and with Flowers he found the perfect vehicle for doing so. Colorful, vibrant and full of life, but with a dark side, the hibiscus flowers featured in the present work have beauty, but only fleeting. This powerful metaphor for Warhol’s own life makes this particular work all the more poignant.