In 1964 Andy Warhol, primarily known for his portraits of the rich and famous, turned his silkscreening prowess to a different subject. Flowers would go on to become one of his best known series and is still highly sought after by collectors today.
1. Rooted in art history
For centuries painters, printmakers, sculptors and draughtsmen have turned their attention to the beauty and wonder of the natural world. From the delicate studies of flowers in Renaissance paintings to the botanical drawings of the 19th century, there is a rich tradition of art imitating nature. While Warhol may have been inspired by the masters that came before him he also elegantly departs from this lineage by showing his flowers still living, against a background of a meadow, rather than plucked and artfully arranged as in the still lifes of art history.
2. Hibiscus in bloom
The original image for Warhol’s Flowers was a colour photo of seven hibiscus flowers taken by Patricia Caulfield for Modern Photography magazine. However Warhol’s image is not an exact derivative. As well as converting the image to black and white in order to add his own layers of colour with the silkscreen technique, he also cropped the image to eliminate incomplete flowers and rotated the flower in the upper corner in order to fit the image into a square. A subtle, but effective, change to the composition that made it into the iconic image it is today.
3. A brush with the law
However the change was evidently not sufficient to avoid copyright law infringement. In 1966 Caulfield sued Warhol for using her image. She won the case and was awarded $6,000 in damages. After copying the logos and packaging of household products, along with press images of celebrities, for so long, it is perhaps surprising that it was a relatively unknown photograph of flowers that was the cause of Warhol’s first plagiarism offense. Interestingly it was this brush with the law that pushed Warhol toward working with photography himself, producing polaroid portraits and still lifes which would become the source of his silkscreens in years to come.
4. A bouquet of colour
Throughout the various iterations of the series Warhol eschews naturalism in favour of psychedelic colours, turning the grass a vivid electric green and the flowers becoming bright shades of pink, yellow, orange and blue, all rendered in the characteristic flatness of his silkscreen technique. In doing so, Warhol reduces the flowers to their most essential elements, eradicating all the detail and depth of the original image in order to create something more akin to the powerful images of cartoons and advertising – not to mention the patterns of 1960s fashion – the artist was constantly referencing throughout his oeuvre.
5. Abstract beauty
This process of reduction and abstraction meant the species of flowers were rarely recognised as hibiscus at first and many newspapers commenting on the first exhibition misidentified them as anemones, nasturtiums or pansies. Today this series has now become known as Warhol’s most abstract work. Commenting on the success of the composition art historian Nina Zimmer has written, ‘‘Warhol reduced and radicalised his Flowers to such an extent that the banal subject matter was now transformed into a powerful pictorial concept. The directionless format contributed to this: the pictures can be read in all directions; like an abstract painting, top and bottom, left and right, have been revoked.’’ Warhol apparently delighted in this effect and requested that the works were installed in a random mix of ‘any side up’.
6. A change of scene
Warhol’s most notable series before Flowers was entitled Death and Disaster and included such powerful works as Electric Chair and Silver Car Crash which took inspiration from harrowing images in newspapers and magazines. Perhaps unsurprisingly these failed to sell to collectors and the artist was persuaded to move onto happier subjects, such as flowers. This proved a successful move with the first exhibition of the new series at Leo Castelli gallery selling out immediately.
7. Memento Mori
The new series was not as much of a departure from Warhol’s previous work as it looks however. While flowers usually convey beauty and serenity in a painting these blooms can be strangely dark and melancholic in form and tone. In some versions of the work the petals are stained red and appear like pools of blood while in others the lighter colours only serve to highlight the fragility and ephemeral nature of life as represented by a short moment of blossom. In this way, Warhol’s Flowers, while seeming more traditional and aesthetically appealing on the surface, belie a darker message that can also be found in the Death and Disaster series.
8. Mass appeal
Today Flowers remains one of Warhol’s most popular series, exhibited widely and reproduced endlessly in ad campaigns, fashion shoots and in popular culture. The juxtaposition of the natural subject and the mechanical means of its reproduction lends the work a playful tension that keeps the viewer coming back for more. Their popularity on the art market is also irrefutable, with portfolios of prints selling for tens of thousands of dollars, while original paintings of the Flowers series have been known to fetch over $1 million.
9. A production line of Flowers
Flowers is also one of Warhol’s most prolific series. While he began creating canvases and prints of this subject in 48 and 24 inch square formats he soon moved onto smaller versions – from 15 to 8, to even 5 inch squares – that were more accessible to less established collectors. And while this subject was reproduced hundreds of times in Warhol’s Factory each work retains the pull of the original image.
10. A return to form
The late ’60s and early ’70s saw Warhol turn back to portraiture and commercialism, but he was to return to flowers again in his career with a series from 1982 entitled Daisy. Here the flower head is cropped from its stem and placed on a block colour background. The colour of the petals also allows for shadow and depth and hand drawn lines have been added to the flower in the style of series such as Love and Reigning Queens.
In 1983, Fujio Watanuki, a longstanding supporter of the Japanese avant-garde and founder of the Gendai Hanga Center in Tokyo, invited Warhol to create a new body of work inspired by Japanese flowers. The result is Kiku, a stunning series that centres on the chrysanthemum flower, or Kiku in Japanese.