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  • Provenance

    Ileana Sonnabend, Paris
    Fred Hughes, New York
    Thomas Amman Fine Art, Zurich
    Heiner Bastian, Berlin
    Stellan Holm, New York
    Peder Bonnier Gallery, New York

  • Exhibited

    Paris, Sonnabend Gallery, Andy Warhol: Flowers, May 1965

  • Literature

    N. Frei, G. Prinz (eds.), The Andy Warhol Catalogue Raisonné, Paintings and Sculpture 1964-1969, vol. 02B, New York, 2004, n.p, no. 1535 (illustrated)

  • Catalogue Essay

    Andy Warhol’s Flowers are some of the most remarkable images of his career. Conceived in 1964, their opening exhibition at Leo Castelli’s New York gallery saw the artist blossom to international stardom. The series is a gorgeous embodiment of some of Warhol’s most enduring themes: these are flowers of mass-production, beauty, and death.

    There is a rich history of flowers in art. David Bourdon likened Warhol’s to ‘cut out gouaches by Matisse set adrift on Monet's lily pond’ (David Bourdon, The Village Voice, 3 December 1964); this wistful image captures a sense of the array of floral referents Warhol could draw upon. Long weighted with symbolic associations of transience, sensuality and glory, flowers play an important role in European vanitas still life paintings of the 16th and 17th centuries. These arrangements often appear on the surface to be a celebration of material wealth or natural beauty, but contain pointed references to death and decay. Strewn among skulls, rotten fruit and hourglasses, the fast-fading splendour of flowers made them potent symbols of the evanescence of all worldly things.

    Warhol’s flowers convey a similar vulnerability. Hovering above a dark and deeply textural grassy background, their flatly vivid colour appears on the verge of burning out or being swallowed up. Created shortly after Thirteen Most Wanted Men, a vast mural of criminals’ portraits that was his controversial contribution to the 1964 World’s Fair, the flowers look like a self-conscious riposte to this sort of dark subject matter. Yet they may have more in common with such works than is at first obvious; Warhol was fascinated by death, and particularly by its desensitising repetition in images of the mass media. His long-running Death and Disaster pieces, begun in 1962, saw images of rioting, car crashes, suicides and other tragedies appropriated from newspapers and tabloids. His awareness of mortality was only heightened after the 1968 attempt on his life by Valerie Solanas, and the vanitas tradition receives a clear nod in a 1976 series of skulls; the Guns and Knives of the early eighties add another autobiographical layer to the still life as self-portrait. Viewed in this context, the flowers, for all their brightness, take on a funerary quality.

    Ronnie Cutrone, Warhol’s studio assistant for many years, adds another insight to the flowers as products of a particular era. He reads the ‘shadowy dark grass’ behind big, colourful blooms as allegorical of Warhol’s own cultural position – an image of grittiness heightened by the total monochrome treatment of the undergrowth in the present lot. ‘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&M 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.’ (Ronnie Cutrone in John O’Connor and Benjamin Liu (eds.) Unseen Warhol, New York: Rizzoli, 1996, p. 61). Indeed, Warhol’s stint as manager for the Velvet Underground associated him with a raw and nihilistic subculture that would prove influential in the attitudes of punk music – a far cry from the optimism of ‘flower power.’

    Importantly, of course, and unlike a traditional still life painter, Warhol did not work from life. His Flowers are based on a photograph published in the June 1964 issue of Modern Photography: taken by executive editor Patricia Caulfield, an image of hibiscus flowers was printed three times in a foldout to show the colour variations possible using a new Kodak home colour processing system. This serial format likely appealed to Warhol, who cropped and altered the photograph for his own purposes. For the first time, he created a square composition; a form which allowed him to arrange the flowers on gallery walls in any orientation, and which he claimed to like ‘because you don’t have to decide whether it should be longer-longer or shorter-shorter or longer-shorter: it’s just a square.’ (Andy Warhol in David Bourdon, Warhol, New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1989, p. 191). By his 1965 Sonnabend Gallery show, he had printed the flowers on square canvases ranging from five to a monumental eighty-two inches in dimension. Warhol’s facility with serialisation by this point is testament to his refined silkscreen technique, by which he sought to be more like machine or production-line than individual artist – the bleeding of colour outside the flowers’ glowing outlines seems to bespeak a deliberate hint of fragility.

    Warhol’s use of Caulfield’s photograph raises interesting questions about his relationship with a mediated world of visual material. Caulfield sued the artist in 1966 on discovering he had used her image without permission; she was then roundly disparaged by Castelli gallerist Ivan Karp and Warhol associate Rainer Crone, who asserted that Warhol had not done her a disservice. They claimed respectively that ‘it was not an earth-shaking photograph, but Warhol made a remarkable series of paintings out of it,’ and that ‘Warhol had found the original photo in a woman’s magazine; it had won second prize in a contest for the best snapshot taken by a housewife.’ (cited in Martha Buskirk, The Contingent Object of Contemporary Art, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press 2003, p.86). Eventually the parties settled out of court, Caulfield receiving two portfolios of flower paintings and royalties for any further use of the image by Warhol.

    The sexist denigration of Caulfield’s original talent is a problematic rupture in a traditional Pop narrative: that of an artist conjuring high-minded material from the banality of appropriated mass-market imagery. Caulfield was no amateur, and later built a distinguished career as a nature photographer. The case clearly perturbed Warhol, who when working with photographs from this point only used those taken by himself or his friends. But the story did not end there. Just weeks after the Sonnabend show, the artist Elaine Sturtevant began to create simulacra of Warhol’s flowers, and went on doing so for many years – in 1991, she presented a show consisting only of Flowers reproductions. She had been given an original silkscreen for the image by Warhol himself. When later asked to describe his own process, Warhol replied ‘I don’t know. Ask Elaine.’ (Bruce Hainley, ‘Erase and Rewind,’ Frieze Magazine, Issue 53, June-August 2000).

    These layers of production and reproduction only add to the Warholian power of the flower paintings. As John Coplans puts it, ‘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. The garish and brilliantly coloured flowers always gravitate toward the surrounding blackness and finally end in a sea of morbidity. No matter how much one wishes these flowers to remain beautiful they perish under one's gaze, as if haunted by death.' (John Coplans, Andy Warhol, New York: New York Graphic Society, 1978, p. 52). Confronted by synthetic and sumptuous petals, at once brashly decorative as a Hawaiian shirt and sombre as memento mori oil painting, we feel a strange idolatry: Warhol’s hibiscus are a blazing evocation of his art, and of the life of Warhol himself.

  • Artist Biography

    Andy Warhol

    American • 1928 - 1987

    Known as the “King of Pop,” Andy Warhol was the leading face of the Pop Art movement in the United States in the 1960s. Following an early career as a commercial illustrator, Warhol achieved fame with his revolutionary series of silkscreened prints and paintings of familiar objects like Campbell's soup tins, and celebrities like Marilyn Monroe. Obsessed with popular culture, celebrity, and advertising, Warhol created his slick, seemingly mass-produced images of everyday subject matter from his famed Factory studio in New York City. His use of mechanical methods of reproduction, notably the commercial technique of silk screening, wholly revolutionized art-making.

    Working as an artist, but also director and producer, Warhol produced a number of avant-garde films in addition to managing the experimental rock band The Velvet Underground and founding Interview magazine. A central figure in the New York art scene until his untimely death in 1987, Warhol was notably a mentor to such artists as Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat.

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synthetic polymer, silkscreen ink on canvas
35.6 x 35.6 cm (14 x 14 in.)
Signed 'ANDY WARHOL 64' on the overlap. Stamped by the 'Andy Warhol Art Authentication Board Ltd. and numbered 'A112.965' on the overlap.

£650,000 - 850,000 

Sold for £722,500

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Contemporary Art Evening Sale

London 29 June 2015 7pm