With its colorful red flowers set against lush green foliage, Andy Warhol’s Flowers (1964) have become one of the most iconic and enigmatic images the artist ever painted. Following on from his highly acclaimed Death and Disaster paintings of 1962-1963, these bright and seemingly cheerful works were a welcomed departure from the dark, politically motivated and often disturbing canvases of the past. However, Warhol’s Flowers series also have a darker, more melancholic quality that beautifully synthesizes the themes that occupied his early oeuvre. This fourteen-inch version has been in the same family collection for nearly fifty years, acquired directly from the artist shortly after it was painted in 1964. Leon and Robyn Supraner knew Warhol through their connections with the entertainment industry (Leon insured Off Broadway shows and was an award winning photographer whose work is in the permanent collections of the Museum of the City of New York and the New York State Historical Society, and Robyn was a lyricist—writing songs for Chubby Checker amongst others—and an author of several books for children). During the 1960s, the couple became friendly with Warhol, visiting the Factory on several occasions, and acquiring a number of works by the artist.
The Flowers series was conceived in 1964 in preparation for Warhol's first exhibition at the renowned Leo Castelli Gallery in New York: "It was well received. Very well received....That show was all sold out. It was very easy, that was my first show of Andy's and my first experience with Andy" (L. Castelli, quoted in P. Smith, Warhol: Conversations about the Artist, London, 1988, p. 209). Ronnie Cutrone, Warhol’s assistant, recalled that whilst many people responded to the Flower paintings as playful works that somehow anticipated the liberating values of the flower-power movement, those closest to the artist were all too aware of their subversive implications. As Ronnie explains, “we all knew the dark side of those Flowers. 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 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, quoted in J. O’Connor and B. Liu, Unseen Warhol, New York, 1996, p. 61).
The original idea for the series is said to have come from Henry Geldzahler, the curator of contemporary art at the Metropolitan Museum in New York; frustrated with the artist’s morbid obsession with death, Geldzahler suggested to Warhol that he try his hand at something different. Geldzahler pointed to a photograph of flowers in Modern Photography magazine, an idea that Warhol, in his deadpan style, immediately seized upon as his subject. Rendered in high-contrast, Warhol saturates his imagery with the same glamour and melodrama that characterized the legendary year of 1964. These works were instantly a hit. “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, A Year in the Life of Andy Warhol, London, 2003, p. 74).
As a motif, the image had numerous attractions for Warhol as, in its purest sense, the photograph is superficial and above all enchantingly beautiful. The bold aesthetics of this particular image meant that it was also particularly suited to Warhol’s recent adoption of the silkscreen process. He had already declared that he wanted to be a "machine" and completely "remove" himself from the artistic process. Although the silkscreen process allowed him to do this, Warhol’s role as an artist is still clearly visible in terms of composition and execution as the final version of the image that appears in the present example is noticeably different from the original photograph. In a move characteristic of his sharp eye for visual detail, Warhol cropped the image to achieve the desired square format. The square format also appealed to Warhol’s aesthetic as it distanced his work from the traditional orientation of the portrait or landscape shaped canvases. This new, square format denies the viewer a fixed way of looking at the work, giving instead four possible orientations.
Regarding Warhol’s Flowers, noted New Yorker art critic Peter Schjeldahl wrote, “They are so goddamn beautiful. And so simple. And their glamour was so intense…. I think it still hasn’t been acknowledged that the whole critical debate should have been over at that moment. Because these Flowers paintings had all the Kantian principles that Greenberg was pushing...The Flowers resolved all [those] formal issues...but with a realistic, not an abstract, image. And why not? Who bought it as a picture of flowers anyway? It was about the mediation...That’s why we reach for the word ‘genius.’ Genius is what goes, ‘That’s not a problem.’ [Warhol] sees clearly. He just does it” (P. Schjeldahl, quoted in T. Sherman and D. Dalton, POP: The Genius of Andy Warhol, New York, 2009, pp. 236-237). Warhol spent much of his career striving to capture on canvas the fleeting nature of both fame and life, and, with Flowers, he found the perfect vehicle for doing so. Colorful, vibrant and full of life, but with a dark side, the hibiscus flowers featured in the present work have beauty, but only fleeting. This powerful metaphor for Warhol’s own life renders this particular work all the more poignant.