From impressionistic legends like Henri Matisse and Van Gogh, to the photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe and Nick Knight, flowers have had an enduring presence throughout art history. Why they’re such an artistic favourite is often attributed to their simplicity – their subtle beauty, how easy they are to depict, and being a universally recognised as a symbol for the natural world. Whatever it is, there are a lot of strong examples to choose from which is why we wanted to highlight one of our steadfast favourites, flowers through the Pop Art lens of Andy Warhol.
Amidst his fascinations with pop culture icons and regular household items, Warhol turned his perspective to flowers starting in 1964. In the fall that year, the Leo Castelli gallery—considered thee space for contemporary art of the time—gave him his biggest solo shows to date. To give some context, American critics mostly hadn’t cottoned on to his work yet, seen mostly as a commercial artist, only European critics truly appreciated the work he and other pop artists were doing as legitimate critiques of American culture. A show at Castelli was a major endorsement from the New York art world, and a potential turning point for greater fame and validation.
The series—aptly named ‘Flowers, 1964’—saw Warhol apply his now standard silkscreen method to a single photograph of four hibiscus flowers, repeating the print in a variety of colours. He then effectively filled the Castelli gallery with flowers in different squared dimensions so they could be seen from different vantage points.
For those familiar with Warhol’s work, it sticks out thematically as his career was primarily fixated on culture and celebrity. There are several reasons as to why he may have decided to use flowers as the subject for what was seemingly a major moment for his career to date. 1964 also saw the New York World Art Fair and an American pavilion showcasing some of Pop Art’s best was to take place with Warhol was one of 10 artists selected alongside Roy Lichtenstein and Robert Rauschenberg. His submission of silkscreened mug shots of 13 notable criminals was deemed too violent and controversial, and was unceremoniously covered with grey paint. A curator friend suggested he try some lighter subject matter as a result.
Warhol was also infamously tongue-in-cheek in a lot of his work, and flowers no doubt played into this. It could be said that depicting flowers or anything from the natural world was considered unfashionable in contemporary art, so choosing one of his first major American shows to do a series on the humble flowers stands out. As does his knack for challenging expectations – imagine hardened art collectors and critics all being at one show that consisted solely of the same repurposed photo of flowers hung around the space.
A major draw of the series – especially when on display is the repetition. Though the colours and orientation of each piece varied, the series still took from the same photo of the hibiscus flowers that he found in an issue of Modern Photography. The serial repetition in filling the room with flowers made a strong visual impact, and perhaps more compelling was the feeling of unease attached to it. They were laden with symbolism – the bright pops of colour used for the flowers were distinctly juxtaposed with grass in an almost acidic green and a dark black background, which gave off somewhat of a sinister sensation. Indeed, Warhol’s flowers were, according to members of The Factory, a contemplation of life and death, inspired by seedy urban landscapes, drug use and materials like leather and vinyl, essentially the sights and sounds of 1970’s Lower Manhattan.
Though it’s easy to pinpoint ‘Flowers, 1964’ as an anomaly within Warhol’s work, it’s really par the course, thematically speaking. Much of his work over the course of his life excelled because he championed the ordinary and mundane by placing it within the context of fine art. Whether it was a commercial product or photos of flowers or celebrities, the work was successful in not only using these very universal symbols as representation of contemporary culture but he could flip that symbolism on its head and encourage people to see certain things in ways they hadn’t. Flowers were no different – what was once a harmless photo series on the humble beauty of the hibiscus turned into a meditation on mortality and self-destruction.
Andy Warhol returned to his usual pop cultural subjects not long after, though he did retain a lifelong interest in flowers as seen in his collection of flower arranging books and collection of polaroid’s. The Leo Castelli show marked the turning point of Warhol being an under appreciated commercial-turned-pop artist into a fully-fledged cultural phenomenon. ‘Flowers, 1964’ isn’t a commonly cited piece of Warhol’s but its underrated nature and its symbolic value makes it a personal favourite of ours. Like most of his work, the flowers were merely images of images, therefore depicting the media and cultural representations of these images. We’re also not the only ones totally mesmerised by them – after being owned for decades by John Powers—a seminal and early American Pop Art collector—‘Flowers, 1964’ sold for a reported $2.5 million dollars in a 2007 Christie’s auction.