Andy Warhol's Flowers are among the most iconic of the artist's motifs, ranking with his Campbell's Soup Cans and Marilyns, as the most indelible images of Pop art. Intended for his debut at the Leo Castelli Gallery in November 1964, these colorfully alluring works sold out quickly, cementing Warhol's reputation. Typically dedicating his gallery shows to a single image conceived in numerous variations, Warhol filled the walls with Flowers of multiple sizes and colors, not only conceiving of these works serially, but for the first time, as a mural. The effect was mesmerizing and not unlike the presence commanded by the present work: the grid arrangement of sixteen square canvases sets a geometric framework for the lush organic subject, the kaleidoscope of Day-Glo colors and the irregular curvilinear forms, their differences pulsating rhythmically across the square matrix.
Warhol derived his flowers from a color photograph of seven hibiscus blossoms that was printed as a two-page foldout in June 1964 of Modern Photography to illustrate an article on the Kodak color processor. The original photograph featured pink, red and yellow blossoms shown against foliage that resembled a coniferous shrub. Warhol cropped the left edge of the picture, eliminating three incomplete flowers, and establishing an approximately square format in the process. He achieved the perfect square by cutting out the flower in the upper right corner of the photograph and rotating it 180 degrees, moving it closer to the other three blossoms. Warhol preferred the square format because of the variable orientations it offered, stating, "I like painting on a square because you don't have to decide whether it should be longer-longer or shorter-shorter or longer-shorter: it's just a square." (D. Bourdon, Andy Warhol, New York, 1989, p. 191.) Owners of these works were not held to a fixed orientation and whenever Warhol had any say in their gallery installations, he displayed a preference for a random mix of "any side up".
The idea of making flowers the subject of a major series was apparently suggested to Warhol by Henry Geldzahler, then curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. By choosing to depict this motif, Warhol consciously engaged with the established canon of still-life painting. "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 cited in A Year in the Life of Andy Warhol, New York, 2003, p. 74.) However, Warhol's interpretation of this age-old subject was entirely his own. The aerial viewpoint and cropped focus did not possess a ground or horizon line and thereby dispensed with space. The palette of artificial, cosmetic colors departed from the blooms' naturalistic hue. Finally, the silk-screen process produced planar zones of flat, unmodulated color that lay on top of the surface, compressing depth even further. Compared to the pantheistic wonder that infused previous considerations of this subject, Warhol rendered his flowers a mass-produced, manufactured appearance that echoed its method of production. Enabled by the mechanical silk-screen process, Warhol created numerous versions of Flowers in different sizes with the help of studio assistants in his Factory.
Also engaging with art history is the Vanitas aspect of the Flower paintings. Warhol's career has been peppered with memento mori from images of damaged soup cans (1962), electric chairs (1963), car crashes (1963), skulls (1976) and aged self-portraits (1989). Although seemingly a departure from the morbidity of these works, the Flowers represent Warhol's obsession with transience, but also with beauty. Insecure of his own looks, Warhol glorified glamour and celebrity most famously with the Marilyns (1962), but not without warnings of transience via its recently dead subject. Although significantly less ominous, Warhol's Flowers share in the same spirit.
With the freedom that Warhol would have championed, the present work reveals an assortment of sixteen 8-inch flowers. Arranged in an interchangeable grid of four rows and four columns, the work comprises an installation even though each canvas retains an object-like presence and self-containment. Some canvases are especially rare: the green flowers on a purple background and the pale blue flowers on a white background are examples. So too are the three canvases with green backgrounds, one especially so for featuring both white and blue flowers. Despite their individual appeal, the strength of these works derives from their collective synergy, chiming like the tiles of an exotic mosaic in the present work.