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The line is from the song “Dead Flowers” by the Rolling Stones. For some reason I began hearing it in my head the other day, while walking around New York. One stanza is addressed to the “queen of the underground.” When is the last time you thought of the Rolling Stones and Persephone in the same breath? Everything is crazy these days, isn’t it? It is the beginning of a new year and for some reason I have been thinking about flower paintings — perhaps prompted by the flower paintings that Edouard Manet made while he was dying. They were done in less than a year.
Manet began them after he finished his last great painting, “A Bar at the Folies-Bergère” (1882), which was exhibited at the Paris Salon of 1882. With his health rapidly deteriorating, Manet started painting the bouquets of flowers that his friends brought him. He did sixteen in all before he died on April 30, 1883, at the age of fifty-one. In 1932, marking fifty years after Manet’s death as well as the centenary of his birth, which occasioned a large centennial retrospective at the Musée de l’Orangerie, Paris, Henri Matisse said in an interview with the great publisher, Teriade:
Manet is the first painter to have made an immediate translation of his sensations and thus given free rein to instinct, and he was the first to act through his reflexes and thus to simplify the painter’s technique.
In 1961, less than thirty years after Matisse praised Manet, Roy Lichtenstein painted “Black Flowers.” The background of the crisply graphic painting is a field of tiny black dots, applied by hand, mimicking the Ben-Day dots of commercial offset printing. During this period, Lichtenstein painted a number of solitary objects, such as “Keds” (1961) and “Tire” (1962), which were derived from magazine and newspaper advertisements.
In the summer of 1964, Andy Warhol began working on his silkscreened Flower series, which he would show in his first solo exhibition at Leo Castelli. Like Lichtenstein, Warhol got his images from the mass media, newspaper headlines and ads, as well commercial brands. With the “flower” paintings, he made an exception and took the image from a spread in Modern Photography, which ceased publication in 1989. The June 1964 issue featured three different color variations of a photograph depicting seven hibiscus flowers taken by the magazine’s executive editor Patricia Caulfield. Warhol cut the image into a square, leaving only four of the seven flowers. Initially, he worked on 48 and 24-inch squares, though he would soon add 14, 8, and 5-inch squares to his production. Clearly, he wanted to cover all the bases by appealing to the wealthy and the not so rich. Being loved was important to Warhol.
When Lichtenstein and Warhol mimicked or used mechanical means to depict flowers, there was a strong belief that certain subjects had devolved into clichés, and that nothing new could be done with them. By employing a mechanical style to update their subjects, Lichtenstein and Warhol could distance themselves from them, as well as take on the manner of the impersonal. The cool objectivity of Pop Art had superseded the intense subjectivity of Abstract Expressionism. And yet, that was not all that was going on back then, was it? In 1965, Jane Freilicher painted a small square painting, “Peonies.” In it, she did something that seemed old fashioned and even obsolete to many: she translated her sensations, and did so – often with flowers as subject – for the rest of her life.
In 1952, Lois Dodd and four other artists started the Tanager Gallery. As an artist who considers herself “stingy with paint,” Dodd has painted many idiosyncratic views of flowers. As her title indicates, the artist painted the back view of a flower in “Pink Scabiosa, Back View” (2013). Both Dodd and Freilicher are, in different ways, associated with Painterly Realists, such as Fairfield Porter and Nell Blaine. They were championed by poet-critics, such as Frank O’Hara and John Ashbery, and ignored – if not dismissed – by critics, such as Clement Greenberg and the next generation, which included Barbara Rose, Michael Fried, and Rosalind Krauss. How could you be a serious critic concentrating on the most radical art and write about flower paintings, unless they were done by Lichtenstein or Warhol? If you could not make an artwork that was objective and impersonal, you were out of the game.
For many years, Richard Baker, who was born in 1959, more than twenty years after Freilicher and Dodd, has painted tulips, the most generic, widely available flower of all, in nondescript vases. In “Tag” (2010), he gives us a relatively straightforward view of a vase of red, yellow and white tulips, some of which are on the brink of wilting and are already bending over. What shifts the painting into another domain is the presence of two strings, which the artist depicts hanging down from the painting’s top edge, with a manila-colored tag affixed to the string on the right. What are we to make of this? Hasn’t Baker figured out how to be impersonal and objective, as well as personal and subjective? Are the lines between objective and subjective really that fixed?
I remember in the late 1960s there were dozens of articles about the death of the novel and then Gabriel Garcia Marquez published 100 Years of Solitude and everyone shut up. That’s not going to happen in the art world, where people are awarded chairs in universities because they and all their acolytes know they are right. When is the last time you heard an art authority – collector, historian, or curator – admit they were wrong about something they put all their money or weight or expertise behind? You might as well be looking for hen’s teeth.
Is the subject of flowers and bouquets, to return to Manet, exhausted? Like smoking, is it something that you should not be doing anymore? Another reason why flowers have been on my mind – admittedly, as sappy a subject as you can get – is because of one particular painting, “Untitled (9 – 42)” (2014) by Thomas Nozkowski. The nondescript title is not going convince anyone that it is a bouquet of flowers, and so, as Frank O’Hara advised in “Personism: A Manifesto” (1959), I am going on my “nerve” alone. I don’t see a bouquet of flowers when I look at Nozkowski’s painting, but I do see a painting “about” a bouquet of flowers, a challenge to those who think a subject is dead. Of course, you are entitled to think I am daft, but that is a risk I am happy to take.
The painting’s largest form floats just off-center: It is an irregular blue circle bisected by a black almond-shape that takes up the circle’s lower half. The combination is reminiscent of an eye without a cornea. Five smaller variations of this blue and black form overlap each other while extending out from the larger one. A flat cowl of maroon, yellow, and green bands ascends from a blue and black mound located along the painting’s bottom edge, swelling as it wraps around the large blue and black circle. The grouping of maroon, yellow, and green bands is repeated, with each vertical combination rising to the bottom edges of three of the pinched larger blue and black circles.
Nozkowski achieves his remarkable transfiguration of a familiar, potentially sentimental image – a bouquet of flowers – without resorting to strange or idiosyncratic forms. In fact – from the pinched circles to the pattern of repeated stripes – everything in the painting is familiar. The colors are not weird either. And yet, something miraculous has been made to occur. Nozkowski does something very different: He neither uses style to distance himself from his subject nor relies on idiosyncratic forms or colors to make it “strange” and new. The vase’s combination of blue and black echoes the six blue and black forms, which I have read as “flowers” rising on green, yellow, and maroon stalks. Other than this echo, there is nothing overtly odd about the painting. The flowers are abstract forms divided into two areas, one blue and the other black. The stalks are repeated patterns of stripes. The artist’s clearly delineated rounded forms court the cartoony without crossing into that territory. The traces of stalks on the right underscore the likelihood that the painting is of a bouquet, and yet there is no pictorial assurance that is what the viewer is looking at. We are left looking, and this is what the artist wants: he wants us to gaze without being able to name (and therefore own) what is before our eyes. We are strangers, not in a strange land but in a familiar one.
By showing us the back of the flower or including a sales tag, Dodd and Baker do something along similar lines. In a world where ownership is broadcast daily, from how much a trophy work of art cost at an auction, to a big diamond ring gleaming on Instagram, to showing off the underwear you wear on a private jet, it is imperative to remember that you cannot take it with you, that what you leave behind is what counts.