The exhibition Andy Warhol's Flowers for Tacoma at Tacoma Art Museum is a major event for Tacoma any way you look at it. We didn't get to see Andy Warhol turn the Tacoma Dome into a giant flower 30 years ago when he originally proposed it, but now we get to see his original proposal in the form of letters, drawings and paintings, plus more than 100 works of art by the Pop Art master. The art includes early illustrations from the 1950s, photographs, paintings, lithographs both black and white and hand-colored, photographs of Andy at work in The Factory, and more.
And if you thought you knew Andy Warhol you may be in for a big surprise. I know I was. There are many pieces in this show that I had never before seen, not even in reproduction.
We've all seen many of the silkscreen flowers with fluorescent paint, ink and pencil in all their hypnotic repetition and funky-acid colors - the superimposed line drawings like chalk and the layered look like 3-D images seen without the glasses. There are many of these displayed in this show, and they are breathtaking. But there are also things such as a tiny and very expressionistic painting of flowers in a pot that is totally unlike anything I've ever seen by Warhol. And there is a series of lithographs displayed in a line along one wall with another line-up of the same lithographs as hand-colored by the artist. Stylistically these harken back to his days as an illustrator with expressive line work and none of the machine-like quality he was famous for. Personally, I think the black and white lithographs are better than the hand-colored ones. They have a stronger impact and show off the sureness of his stroke.
And then there's the hibiscus photograph by Patricia Caulfield that he appropriated without permission and which became the basis for more than 900 paintings. Caulfield, by-the-way, sued Warhol for copyright infringement and it was settled out of court. We get to see Caulfield's original photograph that was printed in Modern Photography magazine along with many of Warhol's variations on it in paint, silkscreen and collage on a wide range of materials.
Before he became famous as one of the original Pop Artists (along with Roy Lichtenstein, who did Pop before him) Warhol was celebrated as one of America's best commercial illustrators, most famous for his "blotted line" shoe illustrations for the I Miller shoe company. One of these illustrations is included in this show. It is called "Two Shoes with Flowers," graphite on tracing paper. The shoe and part of the wearer's heel is drawn in a sketchy ink like that is was made by pulling the ink in a back-and-forth motion and blotting the ink. Very faint ghostlike lines show the unseen part of the shoe through the woman's heel. I don't know whether I never before saw a reproduction of this particular illustration or if the lines are so faint that they don't show up in reproduction. But it is a lovely drawing.
Throughout his career Warhol walked a thin line between commercial and fine art, between selling out and being true to his own vision, between the harsh reality of his electric chairs and unflattering celebrity portraits and the sweetness of the flowers and his advertising art. The public never knew if his whole artistic output was a giant put-on or if he so deadpan what-you-see-is-what-you-get that nobody could believe him. We may never truly know him, but this exhibition goes a long way toward puzzling out the enigma that is Andy Warhol. And by God he made some beautiful and provocative art.
TACOMA ART MUSEUM, ANDY WARHOL'S FLOWERS FOR TACOMA, THROUGH FEB. 10, 10 A.M. TO 5 P.M. WEDNESDAY-SUNDAY, UNTIL 8 P.M. THURSDAY, $8-$10, 1702 PACIFIC AVE., TACOMA, 253.272.4258