Magnificently composed of four white petals and registered on a black ground, Andy Warhol’s Flowers of 1964, is an example of one of Pop Art’s most iconic series. During the fifty-five years since their creation, Warhol’s Flower paintings have become the stuff of legends and have pervaded the global consciousness as a classic emblem of American late 20th century art. In the early 1960s, Warhol established himself as leader of the Pop Art movement with his repeated images of celebrity icons, disaster scenes, and consumer goods such as Campbell’s soup cans. But like many of his fellow Pop artists, he eventually grew eager to move on to other artist endeavors. In the spring of 1965, at the second exhibition of Flowers at Ileana Sonnabend Gallery in Paris, he announced his retirement from painting altogether, turning his artistic intentions toward film. This announcement proved to be premature, however, as he continued his engagement with painting throughout his career. The Flowers series did not mark an endpoint, but rather signaled the changing profile of Warhol’s artistic output.
The idea of the Flowers series began germinating with Warhol in mid-1964 when Modern Photography published an article on a new Kodak home color processing system. To demonstrate the varying visual effects of different exposure times and filter settings, Patricia Caulfield, the magazine’s editor, included a foldout featuring a photograph of flowers she had taken which illustrated four variants of the image, each with slight color differences. Ripe for Warholian appropriation, the seriality undoubtedly appealed to his fondness of image repetition. Henry Geldzahler, Warhol’s friend and curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, declared it was he who ultimately inspired Warhol to use the flower image: “… I looked around the studio and it was all Marilyn and disasters and death. I said, ‘Andy, maybe it’s enough death now.’ He said, ‘What do you mean?’ I said, ‘Well, how about this?’ I opened a magazine to four flowers” (H. Geldzahler quoted in T. Scherman and D. Dalton, Pop: The Genius of Andy Warhol, New York, 2009, p. 235).
The inception of Flowers not only followed the Death and Disaster works mentioned by Geldzahler, it also overlapped with another milestone in Warhol’s career: his commission to make large scale works to decorate the curved façade of the Theaterama building of the New York State Pavilion at the New York World’s Fair. Warhol’s contribution, Thirteen Most Wanted Men, an assemblage of blown-up, large-scale mugshots was met with predictable controversy, as the World’s Fair was supposed to be a celebration of human achievement and progress, not criminality and homoerotic puns made by an openly gay artist.
Shifting from the felons of Thirteen Most Wanted Men to florals philosophically and aesthetically represented for the artist a significant departure toward the abstract. With the Flowers series, there is no spectacular narrative about rising to fame, untimely death, or a critique of celebrity culture that had been recorded by the objective camera lens and re-contextualized with Warhol’s impassionate silkscreen. For the first time, Warhol invited a far greater degree of interpretation, reflection, and questioning from the audience. He welcomed unprecedented subjectivity with this series, and in many ways Flowers became an artistic corollary to his past work. Flowers tied seamlessly with Warhol’s more distressing motifs as a timeless symbol of the brevity and fragility of life, resurrection, and the representation of the transience of celebrity. After the Death and Disaster series of 1962-1963, which illustrated sensational images of electric chairs, suicides and car accidents, brightly blooming hibiscus flowers were a shocking departure. They served as a palliative to the violence of the previous imagery, yet were still laced with Warhol’s preoccupation with mortality that permeates his entire oeuvre.
While the subject matter appears to be somewhat self-effacing, by selecting hibiscus blooms, Warhol willfully initiated a conversation about still-life painting, a centuries-old artistic tradition. Gerard Malanga, a close friend of Warhol, stated: “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 we’re doing my Flower period! Like Monet’s water lilies, van Gogh’s flowers, the genre” (G. Malanga quoted in D. Dalton and D. McCabe, A Year in the Life of Andy Warhol, New York, 2003, p. 74). Warhol’s updated interpretation of this motif is consciously synthetic: he rejected intricacies, mimetic perfection, and the hierarchal compositions long celebrated in the history of art in favor of flattened, distorted flower petals and an aerial perspective that banished the horizon. Planar zones of color, often applied in fantastic DayGlo hues and fluorescent tones, were utilized in place of complex color palettes of the past. By updating the classic tradition, Warhol put a contemporary spin on a timeless theme, and editions of Flowers are treasured vestiges of a transitional period for this seminal postwar artist.
As attractive as the Flower paintings are to the eye, they also beg viewers to consider life and death, a constant theme throughout Warhol’s career even before Valerie Solanas entered The Factory and shot him in 1968. The brevity of life lingers in the images of Jackie Kennedy, Marilyn Monroe, car crashes, race riots, suicides, electric chairs, skulls, and self-portraits of his later career. Symbolizing nature’s impermanence and the fugitive quality of beauty, John Coplans, founding editorial staff-member at Art Forum, stated: “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'' (J. Coplans, Andy Warhol, New York, 1978, p. 52).