The Story Behind Andy Warhol’s Flowers
A leader of the Pop Art movement, Andy Warhol is today remembered most prominently for his pioneering silkscreen prints, including his Campbell’s Soup Cans and Gold Marilyn Monroe, which came to define the accessible art movement in the Sixties. Warhol’s 1964 series Flowers, however, is a refreshing and surprising departure from the artists’ initial themes of pop culture and commercialism, and every spring, critics are reminded of the influence that his nature-focused work continues to have on the art world. Whereas today the Flowers series may seamlessly blend in with Warhol’s oeuvre, the subject matter was– at the time– a sharp departure for an artist known for primarily for his images of brands.
In the Flower prints, several blocks of color comprise the four flowers while a variant of gray outlines the bed of grass. The silkscreen process naturally lends itself to experimentation with respect to color and layering, and Warhol experimented with both, using different color schemes and painting the flowers a vibrant pink and orange in one print and all white in the next. In some of the prints, he deviates from the original template, creating shadows of multiple flowers through several silkscreen prints. Playful and inviting without being overbearing, Flowers was first exhibited in the Leo Castello gallery in New York in 1964.
Given Warhol’s previous work, his choice to depict flowers initially seems as though it would have been out of character. The project he created previous to this one was a series titled 13 Most Wanted Men, wherein he silkscreened the images of mug shots from the 1962 NYPD booklet. (He created the piece for that year’s New York Art Fair, but the exhibit was censored before it opened.)
Whereas today the Flowers series may seamlessly blend in with Warhol’s oeuvre, the subject matter was– at the time– a sharp departure for an artist known primarily for his images of brands.
At this point, one can imagine that the flowers, apolitical and removed from time and space, became an appealing subject. But rather than a direct encounter with nature itself, Warhol used a photograph of hibiscus blossoms he found in the 1964 issue of Modern Photography to create these prints. When Patricia Caulfield, the photographer of this image, found out, she brought suit against Warhol in 1966 for unauthorized use of her image. There is something ironic, almost comical about the fact that Warhol went into a lawsuit for using a simple image of flowers after years of replicating copyrighted product labels– as if in Warhol’s hands, even an unassuming subject could become embroiled in confrontation, politics, and the law.
Warhol’s interest in flowers spoke to his larger interest in cohering floral elements and fashion– a fascination that still persists in art and sartorial spheres of the modern era. Michael Lobel, who wrote an essay entitled In Transition: Warhol’s Flowers, once said that Flowers resonated with the 1960’s fashion set because they regarded the flowers’ simple shapes, bold patterns, and bright colors as promising fixtures of then-contemporary design.
At the time, Flowers was also a refreshing departure from Warhol’s prints addressing mass culture and brands. The instantly-recognizable Campbell’s Soup Can print is grounded in a particular time, place, and social class, but its popularity made it iconic. On the other hand, flowers themselves are iconic and timeless, untethered to a particular pop culture reference or idea. Indeed, the particular flower in Warhol’s prints is barely identifiable, and critics at the time were unable to name it, which was part of the intrigue. As Lobel points out: “In the New York Herald Tribune [the flowers] were identified as anemones, in the Village Voice as nasturtium, and in both Arts and Art News as pansies.”
Perhaps it is the tension between natural life and mechanical art that makes this series compelling even to this day. The silkscreen method was originally intended for commercial use, but Warhol was influenced by his first career in advertising and turned the process into his signature style. On the one hand, the flowers Warhol has chosen for this series are impersonal, their source being a photograph whose import was never identified. On the other hand, the prints encourage viewers to consider the playfulness of flowers with respect to their own simplicity, even when they can’t be identified.
Warhol has said, “My fascination with letting images repeat and repeat— or in film’s case, “run on”– manifests my belief that we spend much of our lives seeing without observing.” Though an interesting statement from an artist who did not observe directly from nature but from photographs, this series– in all its playfulness, vibrancy, and abstraction– causes us to reconsider the universal appeal of flowers each spring.
Twenty years after Flowers first went into print, Warhol returned to the subject with his Daisy series, which you’ll see an excerpt from above. These floral prints render one daisy with a much less photographic effect, though the results are equally compelling. While Daisy presents an even more simplified take on the garden through the lens of one of the world’s foremost pop artists, the motivation and concept behind Flowers remains unequivocal: these flowers are simple yet bold, vivacious yet relatable, and still universally celebrated by those in the art world and beyond.