Andy Warhol’s Flowers
June 14 - September 7
Fifty years ago, during the summer of 1964, Andy Warhol began working on silkscreen paintings of Flowers, a subject that would preoccupy him for the rest of his life. When Warhol had his first solo exhibition at the prestigious Leo Castelli Gallery in New York in November 1964 it consisted entirely of Flowers. Best known for his vibrant pop imagery and searing commentary on art and popular culture, Warhol’s flower imagery reveals a softer, more intimate side of the artist. In retrospect, it is also a provocative series, appropriating a powerful symbol later identified with flower-power counterculture of the 1960s, the age of peace, love, and anti-war protest. The Flowers are the only subject that Warhol revisited throughout his entire career and in almost every medium. The artist’s floral imagery is among the quietest, most beautiful, and least studied. The Cheekwood exhibition is a rare occasion when Warhol’s artificial flower images meet the floral abundance of an actual garden.
This exhibition traces Warhol’s engagement with floral images throughout his career, beginning with a group of his earliest commercial illustrations, drawn in the 1950s, and his creation of the Flowers series in 1964, to photographs, paintings, and screen prints through 1986 before his untimely death the following year. The development of Warhol’s career can be seen in the progression from the delicacy of the early illustrations to the boldness of the 1964 series to the tension between the beauty and banality of the photographs and prints late in his career.
In 1964, Warhol faced a number of daunting challenges. His film Sleep, a 5 hour and 21 minute film of stockbroker John Giorno sleeping, caused an uproar for its length and tedium. His mural Thirteen Most Wanted Men which was created for the New York World’s Fair, was painted over, and his exhibition of painted boxes of grocery store products such as Campbell’s soup, Brillo soap pads, and Kellogg’s cornflakes, Del Monte peaches, and Heinz ketchup generated another round of public controversy.
During this period of temporary setbacks, Warhol turned to his friend Henry Geldzahler, then curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, for advice. The curator pointed to a photography magazine that was opened to a picture of hibiscus flowers. The photograph was part of an article about developing color photographs for amateur photographers by Patricia Caulfield in Modern Photography. Warhol appropriated the photograph and created more than 900 paintings, ranging in size from 5 inches square to slightly larger than 7 x 13 feet. The Flowers were boldly colored, joyous, sensuous, and strikingly new. Caulfield, the photographer, later sued him for copyright infringement, and they settled the dispute out of court.
Leo Castelli sold every painting in the exhibition. Warhol next exhibited the Flowers paintings in Paris with the Galerie Ileana Sonnabend in May 1965, again selling very well. Dejected by what he perceived as a lack of adventure and discernment by collectors Warhol famously decided to stop painting and focus on filmmaking. Still, within a year, the artist returned to visual art, starting new series including his iconic images Electric Chairs in 1965 and Cow Wallpaper in 1966.
Andy Warhol’s Flowers exemplifies the nature of pop art, where something commonplace – like a flower – is transformed into art. Exhibition highlights include Warhol’s audacious floral proposal for the Tacoma Dome in Tacoma, Washington, as well as paintings, studio photographs, and almost a dozen screen prints from his vibrant Flowers series based on the photograph of hibiscus flowers by Patricia Caulfield.