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Carnegie MuseumsMedia Kit

May 16 -
September 5, 2004

A new exhibition looks at how Warhol and others have interpreted something as simple—and not so simple—as the flower.

Andy Warhol, Flowers (hand colored 1) 1974, ©AWF

©Christopher Beane, OdontoglossumPink

Edouard Manet, Flowers in a Crystal Vase, c. 1882, Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Alisa Mellon Bruce Collection

Peter Henderson, The Blue Egyptian Water-Lily, c. 1770-1830, Courtesy The Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentaion

Tulip Cup, English c. 1820, Derby Porcelain Factory, Courtesy Carnegeie Museum of Art

Andy Warhol, Iris, 1950s ©AWF

Andy Warhol, Flowers,1964, ©AWF

For as long as painters have applied pigment to canvas, or artisans have perfected their craft, the flower—in all its symbolism, fragility, and mysterious allure—has been the perfect subject.

For John Smith, assistant director of collections and research at The Andy Warhol Museum, the flower motif is a “great cultural touchstone” and an ideal framework through which to examine Andy Warhol’s voluminous body of artwork. Smith is the curator of, Flowers Observed, Flowers Transformed, the kick-off exhibition of The Warhol’s yearlong 10th anniversary celebration. The exhibition, which opens May 16, uses Warhol’s many flower-themed works as the foundation for a broader examination of the flower in art.

“ On the occasion of the Museum’s 10th anniversary, we wanted to start looking at Warhol’s work thematically, rather than chronologically,” says Smith. “The subject of flowers gives us the perfect first opportunity to play with this new way of looking at the collection.”

In order to illustrate where Warhol’s works fall within the rich history of floral art, Smith has gathered more than 150 paintings, photographs, decorative pieces, textiles, botanical prints, glass works, and contemporary sculptures from artists as diverse as the 17th-century Dutch painter Ernst Stuven, Eduoard Manet, Claude Monet, Robert Mapplethorpe, contemporary British artist Anya Gallacio, and contemporary American artist Jim Hodges. Spanning more than six centuries of floral artwork, the exhibition examines the beauty, symbolism, and scientific significance of flowers by looking at how Warhol and others have interpreted them.

Warhol’s Floral Works
Warhol turned to the flower for inspiration time and again. In the 1950s, he made drawings of flowers in the tradition of representational still life. Blotted-line daisies, roses, and gold-foiled irises appeared in early commissioned artworks and book illustrations. He returned to the floral still life in 1974, with a series of screen prints based on Japanese ikebana arrangements.

It was in 1964, however, that Warhol embarked on one of his most successful projects using the flower motif. In a series of paintings based on a photograph of hibiscus blossoms, Warhol drenched the flowers’ floppy shape with vibrant color and set them against a background of rich undergrowth, transforming them into psychedelic indoor décor. Smith sees similarities between these 1964 Flowers and Japanese prints, as well as Claude Monet’s famous Water Lilies. In fact, art critic David Bourdon noted in a Village Voice article in 1964 that the flowers appear to float right off the canvas, “like cut-out gouaches by Matisse set adrift on Monet’s lily pond.”

“Flowers in art and culture have been ubiquitous since the beginning of recorded art history,” says Smith. “The floral theme wasn’t any more exhausted when Warhol was doing it than when 17th-century Dutch painters or the Impressionists were. But Warhol was sly; he was always playing with traditional art historical themes.”

A Source and Symbol of Life
The value of an exhibition as extensive and wide-ranging as Flowers Observed, Flowers Transformed is in how its breadth illuminates the symbolic role the flower has come to play in art and culture. It was in the Renaissance period that the flower escaped the clutches of its long-held religious symbolism and came into its own as a subject worthy of pictorial representation in the Western world—as a symbol of the natural cycle of life.

During this era, flowers took center stage in vanitas paintings, which were perfected by Dutch artists in the 16th- and 17th-centuries and are represented in this exhibition by works by Caspar Peter van Verbruggen, Jan van Os, Ernst Stuven, and others. These still-life paintings depict lush bouquets of exotic flowers in full bloom, cut and arranged in ornate vases. Commiss-ioned by the wealthy and the royal, these paintings adorned sitting parlors and complimented exquisitely upholstered furniture.

The paintings appear to celebrate the wealth of the patron, but close readings reveal that they also had symbolic meaning. Artists often used the paintings to send messages to their wealthy clients about the fragile nature
of their earthly possessions, the dangers of arrogance and pride, and the inevitability of their death. In one painting in the exhibition, flowers bearing dewdrops draw attention to their comparatively short lifespan and insects feed upon the arrangement’s succulent leaves. In another, tiny blossoms show signs of wilting and decay. In a time when smallpox and countless other
diseases plagued Europeans, these paintings served as subtle reminders of
the brevity of life.

Other artists in Flowers Observed, Flowers Transformedhave approached the notion of the flower as a symbol of life rather overtly.

One of the most delicate and quietly beautiful contemporary pieces in the exhibition is a sculpture by Yoshihiro Suda. A young artist from Japan, Yoshihiro carves fragile, hyper-realistic, life-size, wood sculptures of common weeds and flowers like camellias, roses, and magnolias. His work is represented in this exhibition by a 1998 sculpture entitled, Tulip. In the piece, the yellow petals of a solitary tulip fall away from their stem and tumble down the gallery wall as if guided by a swirling breeze. Installed within an otherwise empty gallery, the work demands silent introspection on the ephemeral quality of life.

Anya Gallaccio also deals with the temporal quality of flowers. Her piece, preserve beauty, includes 800 live red gerbera daisies pressed between sheets of glass. Throughout the course of the exhibition, the flowers will begin to brown and wither beneath the glass, creating a kind of natural performance art that speaks volumes.

Tokens and Tributes
While flowers have symbolized both life and death, they are also widely used to commemorate it. Funereal flowers speak volumes when words can’t be found and function as a universally accepted and appreciated form of memorial. Smith and the curatorial staff at the museum believe Warhol’s 1964 Flowers paintings may have been created as a kind of tribute to the slain President John F. Kennedy. Warhol created the works along with his portraits of the grieving Jacqueline Kennedy only months after the assassination.

The contemporary artist Tom Burr has used Warhol’s 1964 Flowers series as inspiration for his own floral tribute. His 2003 work, Clumped, depicts two black vinyl flowers in the shape of Warhol’s famous series set against a black backdrop. In addition to being a dark reference to Warhol’s work, Burr created the piece as a commemoration of the heyday of 1970s gay underground culture.

The themes and symbolism to be found in Flowers Observed, Flowers Transformed are as varied as the works themselves, and interpretive explorations of these themes—such as the sensual and poetic associations and uses of flowers through the ages or the scientific and medicinal properties of specific flowers—will be interwoven with the display of artwork.

Says Smith: “I hope the wide variety of work in the exhibition not only will highlight the nearly inexhaustible creativity with which artists have approached this subject, but also will remind visitors of the powerfully resonant role flowers continue to play
in our culture.”

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