Andy Warhol's Silk-Screened Flowers

Clip Job: an excerpt every day from the Voice archives.

December 3, 1964, Vol. X, No. 7


By David Bourdon


In "Creation of the Humanoids," the survivors of World War III solve their labor shortage by creating humanoid robots. These "clickers" are blue, hairless, and often dangerously good-looking. Narcissistic women fall into programmed "rapport" with their humanoids. The big problem comes when the R-70s steal other robots off the assembly line and further humanize them into R-96s, which lack only four points to be human. The R-96s are sent out to infiltrate human society. The denouement comes when the heroine and the hero (a militant anti-humanoid who goes around throwing bombs at uppity "clickers") discover themselves to be machines. This is the happy ending of what Andy Warhol calls the best movie he has ever made.

Why shouldn't he identify with an R-96? Behind his genial facade he looks like the Rolling Stones' daddy) there is a lot of cybernetic circuitry. In or out of his factory, he seems to be on automatic pilot. He has turned out as many as 80 paintings a day. He no doubt pines for an automated process that will replace his two apprentices, poet Gerard Malanga and Philip Fagan. (At his recent opening, the artist sat relaxed in a corner while Gerard Miranda stood at the door, like a turned-on R-70 humanoid, receiving congratulations for a "nice show.") By comparison, other artists appear frivolous as they transform used machinery into art. Insidiously, Warhol has been manufacturing art that tends to transform us into machines by showing us mechanical ways of seeing and feeling.

This threat is especially powerful in Andy Warhol's new flower paintings, because it is concealed in blandness. These glossy, floral-patterned paintings look like printed oilcloth, plastic tablecloths, or -- as Henry Geldzahler has described them -- "upper wallpaper."

A number of changes appear in the new work. For one thing, Warhol is using more color. Second, there is no more multiple screening per canvas. Each canvas has been screened only once. His previous subjects were usually familiar images before he used them; often they had strong emotional or psychological overtones. The flowers, innately banal, are vaguely abstract in both form and feeling.

All the paintings derive from a single source, a photo from Modern Photography that has been blown up into silk screens of various sizes. The largest painting, 82 by 164 inches, with only two flowers, lilac and red, is only one-half of the original picture. All the other paintings (with all four flowers) are square, ranging from 24 by 24 inches to 82 by 82 inches. (The painting of big white flowers is dedicated to the memory of Fred Herko.)

The paintings have no top or bottom. The four unmatched flowers, seen from above, are distributed toward the corners. There are unequal spaces between them, and one flower is moving away from its corner toward another, so that one's eyes are jogged into moving along the surface of the painting. With five floppy petals, the flowers look something like giant nasturtiums. Painted in clear, glowing reds and oranges, yellow, lilac, and plumbago blue, they exhale color...

No one else has applied silk-screening technique to painting as originally or to such an extent. As a technical means, and as pictorial image itself, it is absolutely new. Following the first hand-painted depictions of ordinary manufactured goods like soup cans, there has been a complete reversal in Warhol's conception of his art. Turning from the subject of mass-production to the methods of mass-production, he completely retooled himself and began to make multiple reproductions of manufactured paintings depicting extraordinary freak accidents, such as the most bizarre manifestations of death by automobile, by defenestration, by canned tuna fish.

Some say that Warhol claims "great beauty in commercial culture." I think such decisive affirmation would require more energy than Warhol is willing to expend. He is only an eye, but an electronic eye, registering whatever crosses his field of vision and giving us a selective, sharp-focused feedback. No doubt his emotions, his likes and dislikes, play a role in the selection. But the hands-off technique forbids us to attribute any spiritual, psychological, or sociological attitudes to the artist. It MAY be that he likes what he paints. His photographic realism takes no stance before his subjects...

The flower paintings are very beautiful. The artist is a mechanical Renaissance man, a genius.

[Each weekday morning, we post an excerpt from another issue of the Voice, going in order from our oldest archives. Visit our Clip Job archive page to see excerpts back to 1956. Go here to see this article as it originally appeared in print.]

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