Following on the heels of last year’s highly successful Marc Chagall, Flowers and the French Riviera: The Color of Dreams, which saw Marie Selby Botanical Gardens transforming its grounds from end to end in a celebration of the work of the master modernist, Sarasota’s botanical paradise unveils another premier campus-wide exhibition and exploration in Warhol: Flowers in the Factory. Featuring original floral silk screens and poinsettia prints in the Payne Mansion, peeks inside Warhol’s process and evolution and even landscape art heralding both Warhol’s passion for conservation and penchant for order and repetition. SRQ takes a moment with Dr. Carol Ockman, curator-at-large for Selby Gardens and the Robert Sterling Clark Professor of Art History at Williams College, to talk this less celebrated side of the pop art icon.

 Photo 1

SRQ: People don’t know this side of Warhol as much, is that one of the reasons that you wanted to explore it here?Dr. Carol Ockman: Absolutely, because the flower silkscreens are known—they’re iconic—yet when we think of Warhol we think first of other things. We think of Campbell Soup cans. We think of Brillo Boxes. We think of Marilyn Monroe and Liz Taylor, Jackie Kennedy. And so many of these things that are much more a part of a commodity culture, of celebrity. The flowers were a way into thinking about this little-known phenomenon, which is Warhol’s interest and commitment to nature.

Was this work just eclipsed by the rest of his output? There was also the fact that his body, his image if you will, doesn’t seem to be something you’d see outside in nature. I really liked that. When I came across these images of Warhol on the beach fully dressed or rowing in a suit and tie on the lake... He always looks weird or uncomfortable outside in nature. But there are quite a number of images of him there and, of course, there’s a lot of work by him that has botanicals in it.

 Photo 2

What does this juxtaposition say to you, the image versus the interest? That people are complicated. When you’re looking at Warhol, you’re dealing with a person who is so conscious about how he presents himself to the public. His wardrobe, his make-up, his wigs—he’s highly artificial. So you look at Warhol and you look at his very conscious kind of deadpan affect,  his emphasis on superficiality and this kind of “everything is the same and nothing means everything” attitude, and it’s hard to get past that very carefully constructed public image, that façade. Lately it’s come out that Warhol actually bought vast acreage of land, that he focused on land that was not developed, like this part of Montauk in Long Island or the big parcel of land that he bought in Missouri Heights near Aspen around 1980. His interest in land that was wild and had not been manipulated seems to me to be the absolute antithesis of his persona and I love that.

 Photo 3

Was his emphasis on the artificial hiding this part of him? We’re all not really one note. We may seem to be one note, but Warhol is a great example of this. The former archivist at the Warhol Foundation actually chronicles Warhol’s look in terms of how his wardrobe changes from like late 1950s to the ‘80s. And it’s absolutely true that there are periods, like the period in the early ‘60s where he’s wearing these striped t-shirts and jeans, and then he gets involved in the Velvet Underground and he starts wearing a motorcycle jacket. He’s working it. Warhol’s obsession with the superficial seemingly does a lot to mask what is the outsider in him. He comes from a working-class immigrant family and grew up in a Central European ghetto in Pittsburgh. He went to church every Sunday and his father was a coal miner. He’s not the guy that you would think would become this extremely urbane, cool, city sophisticate. Not the same character as the tastemakers before him, the abstract expressionists like Jackson Pollack and De Kooning. They were heterosexual, really macho, their painting was completely different in style, hugely expressive, very gestural, very tactile in its brushwork. And Warhol, as a persona, is the opposite of that, not heterosexual, not macho. And he was actually ostracized in the art world for that.

Photo 4 

Why flowers? And not landscapes or maybe even something that seems a little more off the beaten path? So much of Warhol is a kind of disguise for somebody who felt very deeply what was going on around him. It’s the age of flower power, and he’s making these flowers, thousands of them, right at the time of the non-violent protests against Vietnam. People are wearing flowers in their hair, and Peter, Paul and Mary are singing, “Where have all the flowers gone?” His flowers are gorgeous. They’re bright and they’re big and they’re iconic, but then you look and the backgrounds tend to be black. And of course, flowers die. And Warhol had said that ’63/’64 were all about death. And Warhol did the whole Death and Disaster series—the car crashes, electric chairs, the poisoning from contaminated cans of tuna— right before the flowers.

What is the connection he built there? At a certain point, when you deal with trauma, you need a break. And I had this feeling that Warhol was needing to do that when he started to make the flowers. But it’s not so simple as well, he went from death to life, because flowers are transient. Go back to 17th Century Dutch still-life paintings and flowers are allegories for death. And Warhol certainly knew that. In the first exhibition on Flowers at the famous Leo Castelli Gallery in New York City, he, in the middle of the show’s run, added to the back gallery 42 silk screens of Jackie Kennedy that were based on a photograph in which he stands next to LBJ as he takes the presidential oath of office on Air Force One after the assassination of JFK. 

Warhol said, “Land really is the best art” and he didn’t say flowers or blossoms or blooms, but land. Why? Land is something that is still wild, that is expansive, that resists modification or packaging in a way. He had a huge admiration for land because it embodied nature on a huge scale and he loved particularities of nature. He wanted to maintain some of these untouched landscapes because of their natural beauty, and that is a very powerful statement in the context of our time. 

Photo Credits: 

Flowers, c. 1967 Williams College Museum of Art, Williamstown, MA: Gift of Tennyson and Fern Schad, Class of 1952 (84.17.1) © 2017 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. 

A Warhol-inspired bromeliad display at Selby Gardens.Credit: Darren Erickson Selby Gardens. Flowers, c. 1966-67 Williams College Museum of Art, Williamstown, MA: Gift of Tennyson and Fern Schad, Class of 1952 (84.17.2) © 2017 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.