Ryan McGinness channels Andy Warhol’s flower power in Aspen
For the Aspen Times
IF YOU GO …
What: Ryan McGinness, ‘Warhol Flower Icons’
Where: Baldwin Gallery
When: Opening reception Friday, June 21, 6 p.m.; exhibition runs through July 21
More info: baldwingallery.com
Located on Centre Street in downtown Manhattan, across from a very active Buddhist temple, on a transitional block between Chinatown and the still super-chic south SoHo, sits the studio loft of artist Ryan McGinness where we met last May. He was finishing photographing his latest series, “Warhol Flower Icons,” all 459 canvases of which go on display at the Baldwin Gallery tonight.
As the title implies, McGinness’ flowers are an interpretation of Andy Warhol’s “Flower” paintings, which he debuted at the Leo Castelli Gallery in 1964. Fifty-five years ago, the subject matter was a radical departure for Warhol. Until then it had been Campbell’s and Coca-Cola (household famous), Marilyn Monroe (celebrity famous) and mug shots of criminals (notoriously famous). This new subject matter was not famous, rather the opposite: generic blossoms, although politically charged — “flower power” and such.
Today, Warhol’s flowers have faded into the background scenery of the Warhol oeuvre, but the more McGinness reinvestigated the series, the more he realized how largely misunderstood they have become.
“(The flowers) are arguably his largest body of work,” McGinness explained. “They rival the portraits. He made over 900, all different sizes, from 5 inches up to 10 feet.”
That’s part one. Part two is that, “Yes, everyone knows it’s based on the one photo of hibiscus blossoms by Patricia Caulfield published in the June 1964 issue of Modern Photography. But what people don’t realize is that it’s not a photo of flowers that’s being reproduced. It’s a hand holding an image of a photo of the flowers accompanying an article about Kodak’s latest chemical imaging processor. So it’s an image of an image about process and technology.”
Finally, there is one more level at work here. McGinness continued: “Furthermore, once he had cut the original material and recomposed it into a square, then finessed the stamens, then made photo copies, and then photo copies of photo copies of photo copies in order to increase the contrast, what he ended up with, what he wanted to make, was not a flower, but a symbol of a flower … and making an image into a symbol by flattening it down. That’s close to my heart. That’s what I do with my work.”
McGinness has been a longtime fan of Warhol and the parallels in their work have been pointed out for about as long as he has been making art.
“I grew up loving Warhol,” he explained. “I lived with a poster of a grid of Coke bottles in my bedroom when I was in junior high school. I remember where I was when he died. I went to Carnegie Mellon because that’s where Andy went. … Well, also because it’s a great school.”
When McGinness was a senior at Mellon, he also helped open the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh before scooting off to New York City to create his unique visual style which blends a pure kind of communication design with a subversive, sometimes psychedelic, sometimes sexualized iconography.
For his take on the Warhol flowers, he “decided to do this in the spirit of artists doing other artists’ work. These are flowers after flowers.”
McGinness walked me over to a 6-inch stack of drawings to illustrate his rigorous deconstruction — to the studs, as they say. He started with the photograph mechanical rather than the painting, then kept reducing and reducing until he had four circles and a square. The grass became a grid. From there, he added the details back in. Drawing upon drawing upon drawing until he found his take.
From there he devised a set of rules via a series of 50 test paintings: One design within a color palette range and then the compositional components — grass, pedals, background — became the manipulated variables. Throw in a rotation and the “solutions,” as he likes to call them, are infinite.
It’s easy for the genius of Warhol to get lost in plain sight. His preternatural insights into 20th (and now 21st) century mass culture were so prescient, his images of icons now so iconic, his influence on contemporary art so vast, it’s as if he’s gone molecular, and thus invisible, something that would have pleased him greatly. Nonetheless, through McGinness’ meticulous reimagination, Andy’s flower power lives on.