Painted in 1965, Andy Warhol’s Flowers are a seminal example of one of his most iconic motifs. Part of the larger Flowers series, this particular work layers bright, lively colors within a context of darker, more melancholic undertones that serve as a reminder of commercialism and the ephemerality of nature. The series was inspired by Henry Geldzahler, then curator of Contemporary Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art. Following Warhol’s Death and Disaster series, Geldzahler became frustrated by Warhol’s obsession with mortality. He suggested the artist turn towards a simpler subject matter, pointing towards a seemingly innocuous image of hibiscus blossoms in a 1964 copy of Modern Photography. Though this series allowed Warhol to move away from the electric chair, car crash, and race riot imagery that defined his early career, it is still permeated by a more macabre reminder of ominous themes within American society at the time.
Warhol’s Flowers feature his iconic four-flower motif where each flower is strikingly color-blocked to seemingly hover above shadowy blades of grass. With yellow, orange, and red, Warhol purposefully chose cosmetic colors that would fascinate and absorb viewers in a sensory experience. While Warhol’s color palate draws attention, it is the flowers’ positioning against a black-and-white background that achieves high contrast and drama, making this work truly Pop. Combining bright and flat imagery, Flowers evokes a simplicity that is instantly accessible, heightening Warhol’s attempt to create truly “popular” art while subverting foreboding musings on mortality and the ephemerality of beauty.
The flowers are deliberately flattened forms, mechanically manipulated to contribute to his piercing critique of contemporary image production. Warhol appropriated the images from Modern Photography, cropping and rotating the hibiscus flowers to achieve a purely square format. The square-shaped canvas distanced his work from traditional landscape or portrait orientation. Instead, the square formatting denies viewers a fixed way of looking at the work, opening up possibilities for display, orientation, and interpretation.
Created between 1964 and 1965, the Flower series manifested in a range of colors and sizes. While many of the works featured Warhol’s signature acrylic and silkscreen on canvas, some also featured spray paint as a medium. Warhol has been photographed creating iterations of the series with aerosol cans, notably for his larger format works that appeared in the Sonnabed collection. This particular piece is part of a cache that features Warhol’s various mediums.
The present work was created on the same 24 x 24 inch square canvases that came to define the series. Unlike other works in the series, this piece is far from monochrome. Instead, Flowers features individually distinct flowers with each flower color-blocked in a vivid, warm color palate. In this particular work, the edges of the color-blocked passages and hibiscus petals do not align perfectly, alluding to the imperfect human touch that underlies Warhol’s fascination with mechanical production and autonomy.
Spanning dimensions from 5 to 60 inches, the Flowers series marked the last paintings Warhol produced in one of the most formative decades of his career. Created after his seminal partnership with esteemed art dealer, Leo Castelli, the series marked a turning point in Warhol’s early practice. Flowers synthesizes Warhol’s early period, touching on themes of commerce and consumerism, morality and corruption in his signature Pop Art, silkscreen style. The series is the most visually abstract and conceptually subversive of his early works, reflecting how Warhol was able to look beyond the subject nature of brand names and celebrities that made him famous.
The Flowers series alludes to the larger art-historical genre of flower painting. As described later, “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, A Year in the Life of Andy Warhol, New York, 2003, p. 74). However, instead of celebrating the beauty of the flower, Warhol uses it as a mechanism through which to explore his fascination with death and the temporary nature of life. Through his silkscreens, Warhol abstracts nature, bringing light to disturbing assumptions about American society at the time. In creating this series, Warhol illustrates how nature in the age of technology can be written off as another commodity. With the widespread celebration of his Flowers, Warhol showed how nature could be appropriated by consumers. He effectively strips flowers of their grandeur, packaging them into a reproducible motif and thrusting them under a commercial spotlight.
Warhol grew up in the age of Abstract Expressionism, which engaged a more gestural, transcendental nature of painting. The deliberate banality of his Flower paintings served as an alternative to the predominant art movement of the time. The compressed forms and colors went on to anticipate his later oeuvre, particularly his Shadow and Camouflage paintings from the late 1970s and 1980s.
By appropriating, manipulating, and reproducing images from a magazine, Flowers exemplifies the very practice that defines the Pop Art movement. The work engages themes central to Warhol’s early oeuvre while pushing him towards creating more abstracted compositions layered in nuanced meaning. This particular piece, created within the larger Flowers series, highlights an important era within art history through one of the most widely-recognized and popular motifs of Warhol’s practice.