When I approached the Warhol retrospective, “From A to B and Back Again” at the SFMOMA, I wondered what new things I would notice. Warhol was the first artist I became really interested in, back when I was 16. Since then I’ve seen his work in museums around the world, read countless books and articles, and viewed a number of documentaries — I even dressed like him for Halloween one year. So what new thing would I notice in the work of an artist that even I had to admit was suffering from over-exposure? Had the repetition of his repetition finally got the best of him?
The answer came in the room devoted to his Flower paintings. Hung against the Cow Wallpaper, while strains of the Velvet Underground’s “Venus in Furs” blared, they were impressive all over again, huge and glaringly bright. But it was a vitrine along one wall that showed me something new. I’d seen Warhol’s source material many times, Patricia Caulfield’s photo of hibiscus flowers, and read about the law suite. Yet I had never seen the original film that Warhol had used to make the silkscreen. After experiencing the thrill of seeing something genuinely touched by the artist’s hand, I saw something else.
Warhol made a number of alterations to the original photographs, including cropping. He also manipulated the stigma — the flower’s sex organs — by duplicating one of each of them. Looking at the original film, I saw how purposeful this pairing was. And the more I looked at it, the more I realized that this wasn’t about Warhol’s love of duplication, it was about signifying the importance of these parts. While I’d long noticed that center of two of the flowers looked remarkably like an anus, I hadn’t noticed how much the other two looked like a cock and balls.
The story behind Warhol’s Flowers series is that it was an ironic reaction to criticism that his Death and Disaster series was so dark. In response, Warhol would give people pretty flowers and cow wallpaper. What I’ve never seen discussed is that the flowers are a homoerotic statement of the highest order — both subtle and in-your-face. Of course flowers are so often employed as a sexual metaphor, going back to the birds and the bees, it’s barely worth mentioning in art criticism. Except Warhol has inverted the notion of flowers as symbols of reproductive sex. What’s more, he managed to get this image of gay sex on the walls and coffee cups in respectable homes all over the world.
Homoeroticism had certainly been a subject of Warhol’s early work. There’s a whole section of the exhibition devoted to it. But by the mid-sixties, Warhol had moved more explicit homoeroticism into his films. His art was dealing with electric chairs and car crashes — a whole lot of death. So sex couldn’t be too far away. With the flowers, he took an image that’s so identified with sex that, through repetition, we barely think of it that way anymore, and pulled a fast one on us. Almost as if he was saying, “gay sex has always been here — people just pretend not to notice.”
I didn’t think I could be the only person with this observation. But a search through my Warhol books (the catalog from the show notes, without apparent irony, that Warhol “altered the orientation” of the flowers) and the internet (“Warhol homoerotic Flowers” and all other variants brought zero relevant results). So I’m either completely wrong or it’s so obvious that no one is discussing it.
But it’s not too obvious, apparently. When I went back to the show with some co-workers, I shared this insight. One of my companions was contemplating the purchase of tchotchke imprinted with an image from the Flowers series. She was, until I mentioned this. What had been a “nice, pretty image” was now something else. Proof that Warhol’s impish, sly sense of humor still has the power to shock.
This is a place where I keep track of things I've seen and done, art reviews and discoveries, processes and messes.