Created for Andy Warhol’s seminal 1965 ‘Flowers’ exhibition at Sonnabend Gallery, Paris, Flowers (1965) is a striking monochrome example of one of the artist’s most visually bold and conceptually piercing series. In a powerful riposte to the romantic art-historical associations of flower painting, Warhol’s blossoms are flattened, condensed and mechanically repeated. Refined to four flat silhouettes, they appear in the present work as blank white voids hovering among shadowy blades of grass. The image was derived from a photograph of hibiscus blooms published in the June 1964 issue of Modern Photography magazine, which was repeated in four different colour variants to illustrate an article on a Kodak colour processor: a Pop-ready serialised format which, as Michael Lobel argues, ‘suggests the blossoms were ripe for Warholian plucking’ (M. Lobel, ‘In Transition: Warhol’s Flowers’, in Andy Warhol Flowers, exh. cat. Eykyn Maclean, New York 2012, n.p.). Creating his Flowers silkscreens on a variety of scales – all square, so that the canvases could be hung in grid-like formation on gallery walls – Warhol amplified the original photograph’s chill implication that nature had become another packaged product in the age of consumer technology. Distilled to stark black and white, Flowers represents one of Warhol’s most iconic motifs at its vacant and beguiling best.
It was the curator Henry Geldzahler who reportedly first drew Warhol’s attention to the Modern Photography image, suggesting that he shift away from his increasingly dark subject matter. ‘I looked around the studio and it was all Marilyn and disasters and death’, he recalls. ‘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 I opened a magazine to four flowers’ (H. Geldzahler, quoted in unpublished interview with J. Stein, 1973, Geldzahler Papers, Beinecke Library). He perhaps didn’t anticipate the macabre flavour that Warhol would bring forth from the photograph. Contrary to Geldzahler’s memory, the magazine spread in fact featured seven flowers, which Warhol manipulated extensively in order to produce his trademark configuration of four. He cropped the image and shifted the placement of one of the blooms in order to fit within the limits of the square canvas, and altered the flowers’ interiors by transferring their internal silhouettes. According to Tony Scherman and David Dalton, he asked his assistant Billy Linich ‘to run the photo repeatedly through the Factory’s new photostat machine – “a dozen times, at least,” said Billy, to flatten out the blossoms, removing their definition, the shadow that lent the photo its illusion of three-dimensionality’ (T. Sherman and D. Dalton, Pop: The Genius of Andy Warhol, New York 2009, p. 247). While this deliberate flatness – a quality common to Warhol’s Pop aesthetic – presented a rejoinder to the emotionally charged Abstract Expressionist painting that had reigned throughout the 1950s, Warhol’s lost, empty flowers took on their own harsh beauty. David Bourdon likened them to ‘cut out gouaches by Matisse set adrift on Monet’s lily pond’ (D. Bourdon, ‘Andy Warhol’ The Village Voice, 3 December 1964, p. 11).
Warhol’s unprecedented floral vision certainly contrasts with the evanescence of Monet’s Nymphéas, the churning brushwork of Van Gogh’s sunflowers, or the lush realism of 17th-century Dutch vanitas arrangements. Nonetheless, they might be seen to reprise something of a traditional role for flowers in art history. Splendid and impermanent, flowers – particularly in Old Masterly still lifes – have long stood as a symbol for transience and the vanishing glory of all worldly things. In this sense, Warhol’s flowers can be seen not only as an anti-painterly gesture in the death throes of Abstract Expressionism, but also as a product of a wider societal moment in which optimism was fast fading to black. Ronnie Cutrone, Warhol’s studio assistant, saw the ‘shadowy dark grass’ lurking behind the day-glo colours of many of the Flowers as reflective of the artist’s position in 1960s culture. ‘Don’t forget, at that time, there was flower power and flower children. We were the roots, the dark roots of that whole movement. None of us were hippies or flower children. Instead, we used to goof on it. We were into black leather and vinyl and whips and S&M and shooting up and speed. There was nothing flower power about that. So when Warhol and that whole scene made Flowers, it reflected the urban, dark, death side of that whole movement’ (R. Cutrone in J. O’Connor and B. Liu, Unseen Warhol, New York 1996, p. 61). Indeed, Warhol’s spell as manager for the proto-punk band The Velvet Underground associated him with a gritty and nihilistic avant-garde that directly opposed the buoyant idealism of flower power. In the present work, shot into total monochrome, the flowers become a fierce, poignant and beautiful emblem of Warhol’s time.