Against a rich, green ground, four vibrant flowers bloom in Andy Warhol’s Flowers (1964). Painted during the same year as his legendary exhibition of Flower paintings at Leo Castelli’s New York gallery – then the centre of the post-war art world – it stems from one of his most iconic series of works. Created at the apex of his artistic powers, Warhol’s Flowers represent the culmination of his painterly development during the 1960s. Based on a seemingly innocuous image from a magazine, their subject was something of a reversal for the artist, who had for so long trained his eye on celebrity culture and consumerist iconography. Though their bright, joyful appearance ostensibly offered a departure from his recent Death and Disaster paintings, these serial reductions of nature ultimately gave rise to one of his most subversive critiques of contemporary image production. Their abstract, flattened petals and vivid cosmetic colouring undermine the romantic sense of wonder usually associated with the art-historical genre of flower painting. Like his portraits of Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor, they shed a disarming and enthralling light on the notion of mass-produced beauty. As curator John Coplans wrote, ‘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’ (J. Coplans, Andy Warhol, Pasadena 1970, p. 52).
Warhol derived his source image from an article in the June 1964 issue of Modern Photography, where it was used to illustrate Kodak colour processes. From the vivid photograph of hibiscuses, he flattened the details into a simplified silhouette, here rendered in orange, purple and blue. Hoping the artist would seek out an alternative to the dark subject matter that had occupied him for much of the 1960s, the curator Henry Geldzahler allegedly pointed Warhol in the direction of the magazine. ‘I looked around the studio and it was all Marilyn and disasters and death’, Geldzahler recalled. ‘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 I opened a magazine to four flowers’ (H. Geldzahler, quoted in unpublished interview with J. Stein, 1973, Geldzahler Papers, Beinecke Library). For the Flowers, Warhol reduced the number of blossoms in the original shot from seven to four and cropped the image into a square. To further eliminate any details, the image was then run through The Factory’s Photostat machine at least ‘a dozen times’. His assistant, Billy Linich, remembered how Warhol ‘didn’t want it to look like a photo at all. He just wanted the shape, the basic outline, of the flowers’ (B. Linich, quoted in T. Scherman and D. Dalton, Pop: The Genius of Andy Warhol, New York 2009, p. 327).
Castelli recognised early on that Warhol’s radical innovation extended far beyond the subjects of his images. ‘I was interested in Pop art but for its formal qualities, you see’, he explained. ‘… It was probably his serial imagery, the fact of repetition, that made something [to me] more important than what the images were about’ (L. Castelli interviewed by P. Cummings, 14 May 1969 – 8 June 1973, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institute). Indeed, the possibility of permutation is what distinguishes Warhol’s Flowers from art-historical interpretations of the subject. Unlike the floral still-lifes of the Dutch Golden Age or Monet’s waterlily paintings, Warhol’s flattening and serialisation of the image counteracts the sentimentality, romance and singularity typically associated with the genre. The seemingly banal nature of his source, moreover, speaks to his desire to shift his commentary away from the subject itself, highlighting instead the macabre implications of mechanical reproduction. The magazine’s cheerful reproduction of petals and grass suggested that nature, in the age of technology, was simply another commodity available for appropriation by the snap-happy consumer. In its serial transition into paint, this once-functional image took on a new kind of dark, seductive allure. ‘They are so goddamn beautiful’, wrote Peter Schjeldahl. ‘And so simple. And their glamour was so intense ... That’s why we reach for the word “genius” … He sees clearly. He just does it’ (P. Schjeldahl, quoted in T. Sherman and D. Dalton, ibid., pp. 236-37).