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Updated Friday, December 21, 2012 at 07:01 AM

Tacoma’s missed chance at Warhol’s flower power

By Michael Upchurch
Seattle Times arts writer

On Jan. 26, 1982, Andy Warhol Studio sent a letter to the powers that be in Tacoma, announcing: “Andy Warhol would like to see the Tacoma Dome as a large flower.”

This flower, the letter went on to explain, would be “a unique flower from the imagination, a flower’s flower.”

The letter came in response to solicitations from the city of Tacoma, seeking artists’ input on decorative ideas for the Tacoma Dome, which was under construction at the time. (It opened in 1983.) Warhol’s proposal wound up being one of five finalists for the project, but ultimately wasn’t chosen.

Thirty years later, the Tacoma Art Museum has mounted a what-if exhibit: “Andy Warhol’s Flowers for Tacoma.” The show includes a small visualization of what the Dome might have looked like if the Warhol plan had been carried through, documents pertaining to the never-realized project, and an exploration of Warhol’s own treatments of floral subject matter throughout his career.

While the idea of a flower-dominated Tacoma Dome supplies the novelty in the show, the depth of the exhibit rests in Warhol’s flower-image oeuvre, including his many takes on a single hibiscus bouquet that he “borrowed” from an article by writer-photographer Patricia Caulfield in Modern Photography magazine. (She sued him for copyright infringement, and they settled out of court.)

Legal problems didn’t discourage Warhol from eventually creating more than 900 paintings and silk-screen prints from the image. “Andy Warhol’s Flowers for Tacoma” includes a modest selection of these, along with other related photographs and artworks.

Among its surprises: “Flowers in Vase,” an acrylic-on-linen from the 1970s that reads like a bright and smeary homage to David Hockney’s floral still-lifes from the same era, and a series of large screen prints on Lenox Museum Board, all titled “Daisy,” that have a simple crayon-like exuberance to them, their loose shapes and vibrant colors coming across as loopy, laughing mandalas.

The Caulfield-derived “Flowers” from 1964 — using acrylic, fluorescent paint and silk-screen ink on linen — marks one of the last times Warhol actually painted something before shifting to the silk-screen technique for which he’s better known. A series of 1970s screen prints on paper, also titled “Flowers,” are a mad buzz of colors so drenched and bright they wipe out half the botanical details.

Along with the actual artwork, the exhibit includes vintage photographs that evoke the flavor of the Warhol era, with its celebrity obsessions, aestheticization of the mundane, and focus on the instantaneous and ephemeral. The photographers include Nat Finkelstein, Dennis Hopper, David McCabe, Duane Michals and Warhol himself.

Most of them emphasize the name-dropping, social-butterfly aspect of Warhol’s life. But one amusing McCabe shot from 1965 couldn’t be more telling about his work ethic.

In the foreground, Warhol is clearly immersed in creating one of his “Flowers” paintings, while behind him Edie Sedgwick, Gerard Malanga, Billy Name and other Warhol Factory hangers-on slump on a couch, read or chat among themselves. Pretty much all of them, except Malanga, pay no heed to what Warhol’s doing. Weren’t they a distraction? Didn’t they get in the way?

Yet there’s no tension in the scene — just a pleasant buzz that’s a blend of hanging out and happy industry.

Maybe, you realize, he just liked having company while he went about his business.

Michael Upchurch: mupchurch@seattletimes.com

EXHIBITION REVIEW

‘Andy Warhol’s Flowers for Tacoma’

10 a.m.-5 p.m. Wednesdays, Fridays-Sundays, until 8 p.m. Thursdays, Tacoma Art Museum, 1701 Pacific Ave., Tacoma; $8-$10 (253-272-4258 or www.tacomaartmuseum.org).


Courtesy city of Tacoma
A mock-up of Andy Warhol’s Tacoma Dome proposal. His design idea was one of five finalists considered in the ’80s.




The Andy Warhol MuseumContribution The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc.
Warhol’s flowers seem to bloom from the walls and floor in Ugo Mulas’ “Andy Warhol, Philip Fagan, and Gerard Melanga” (detail), 1964-65.




The Andy Warhol Museum
One of Andy Warhol’s cheerful “Daisy” screen prints, in the “Flowers for Tacoma” exhibition.




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