It’s a tantalizing vision of Tacoma – a gray downtown and port area, brightened by an enormous yellow hibiscus flower coating the Tacoma Dome. It was Andy Warhol’s vision for the Dome back in 1982, but Tacoma officials and citizens had other plans and we ended up with a plain gray giant golf-ball. But Tacoma Art Museum doesn’t want to let the idea rest in peace, and has brought over 100 of the the pop artist’s original flower paintings, designs, photographs, prints and textiles back to town in “Andy Warhol’s Flowers for Tacoma,” open through next February.
If nothing else, it will totally brighten up anyone’s gray November day. But the gallery full of saturated colors and flowery designs is also a fascinating glimpse into a softer part of Warhol’s life that is often ignored as the Marilyns and Campbell’s soup cans blare into our collective consciousness.
Because Warhol liked flowers. Not just the huge yellow-and-hot-pink shapes that he photographed, screenprinted and surrounded with thin hand-drawn lines to transform nature into the kind of flat, super-saturated pop image that made him so successful. No, he liked flowers as delicate, Zen-like watercolors, flowers as oddly dumpy still-lifes, flowers as illustrations, as tattoos. TAM takes us through the Warhol flower journey in an exhibition that contrasts media and style with a tongue-in-cheek flair.
It all started, in TAM anyway, with Warhol’s mom Julia, who had some flower-print slipcovers in her house and who worked with Andy to create his first daisy drawings in the 1950s. Soon afterwards Warhol got his first job as a New York illustrator for fashion magazines like Glamour and Vogue, and there are some hand-drawn illustrations for these, as well as a delightful painting of a fashion-plate lady in mock-Edwardian underwear tattooed all over her white skin with – yep – flowers.
From there the show moves through to 1964 when Warhol, encouraged by curator friend Henry Geldzahler after some disastrous political art shows, appropriated a photo of hibiscus flowers from an amateur photographer (he later made payback) and began the screenprinting/enlargement/painting process that was to be such a financial success for him. While there are plenty of big works in the show (approaching the artist’s biggest, at 7×13 feet) there are also lots of little ones, showing Warhol’s versatility of mind. Tiny Polaroids of clumpy vases are almost intentionally non-artistic, while a hand-painted still-life is just weird. There are also some fascinating shots of Warhol himself, skinny in black, creating the enormous prints on his studio floor.
From there the progression to the 1982 submission for the Tacoma Dome design seems logical. As well as acetate and screenprint images of the big flower Warhol envisioned for the Dome, there’s the actual typed proposal, complete with this disarmingly ingenuous phrase: “How the giant flower is to be mounted on the dome still has to be worked out.”
Warhol was one of four artists that were voted on for the $28 million redesign budget, and he wasn’t chosen. The design that was – Stephen Antonakos’ “Neon” – was so protested by citizens that the entire public art money ordinance that supported it was repealed for 15 years. Now, the tide is turning a little, but if anyone has the money to put a giant yellow flower on the Tacoma Dome they’re not stepping up yet.
Maybe they’ll see the show and be inspired.
“Andy Warhol’s Flowers for Tacoma” is on view 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Wednesday-Sunday, 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Thursdays through February 10, 2013. $10/$8/free for five and under and 5-8 p.m. third Thursdays. Tacoma Art Museum, 1701 Pacific Ave., Tacoma. 253-272-4258, tacomaartmuseum.org