Andy Warhol and His Soup Cans

1 January 2017

Fearing that his comic style paintings were inferior to those of Lichtenstein’s, Warhol moved on to another motif – painting consumer goods, specifically Campbell’s Soup cans. His original 32 paintings of Campbell’s canned soup (titled Campbell’s Soup Cans) played a major role in defining Andy Warhol’s artistic career. Apart from helping him get his first solo exhibition the Campbell’s Soup Cans steered the direction of Warhol’s future work. It was because of Campbell’s Soup Cans that Andy Warhol got his first solo art exhibition, in the summer of 1962.

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Even though Warhol lived and worked in New York, the exhibition took place in Los Angeles, at Ferus Gallery. (Hopkins) Irving Blum, who was running the Ferus Gallery at the time, made the exhibition possible. (Hopkins) During his visit to New York, Blum was intrigued by several paintings of Campbell’s canned soup that he saw at Warhol’s studio. After Warhol explained his intent to paint a series of cans for every flavor in the Campbell’s Soup catalogue Blum proposes a show for the entire collection and Warhol embraced the idea.

The exhibit, consisting of 32 paintings, ran for most of the summer and managed to stir up lots of fuss in the art scene. As Blum put it, some Los Angeles artists were “tortured by it” (Bastian 40). According to Kirk Varnedoe, “David Stewart, a dealer in Pre-Columbian art a few doors down from Ferus, teased Blum by buying about fifty cans of Campbell’s Soup at a nearby market and displaying them stacked in his shop window, with a notice to the effect of ‘Buy Them Cheaper Here’” (Bastian 40).

Although other artists were somewhat hostile towards the paintings five different art collectors were ready to purchase all the paintings from the series. Blum was against the idea of separating the collection; Warhol felt the same way as well, so Blum ended up buying all the paintings in the series himself. Albeit with some controversy, the paintings still made a great impact on the art world and finally earned Warhol the title of an artist. Each one of the 32 paintings in the series (Displayed at the Museum Of Modern Art in 2011) is identical in size, 20 x 16”.

The image of each soup can spans the entire height of the canvas in each painting, there is space, of about 4 inches, left between vertical sides of the canvas and each side of the can. They were all hand-painted, using synthetic polymer on primed canvas, “with the exception of the fleur-de-lis motifs along each label’s bottom edge (which were each individually printed, with varying degrees of completeness and clarity, via hand-made gum-rubber stamps)” as Kirk Varnedoe put it.

The color palette of the paintings closely resembles that of an actual Campbell’s soup can, consisting of mostly red and black with a touch of silver and gold. The lettering on the can matches the bend of the can created by its three-dimensional depiction. Warhol left many inconsistencies throughout the paintings. According to Kirk Varnedoe, “The ‘white’ canvases vary in grayed brightness; the reds range from near-orange to Indian; the band encircling the label’s top, patchily filled-in with mottled gold on 31 canvases, is left unpainted in ‘Tomato Rice’; most cans have 11 fleurs-de-lis but ‘Beans with Bacon’ has 12; and so on. The 32 soup cans at first might evoke confusion or frustration from a viewer: “Why is this art”. Gradually, after viewing the collection of canvases for longer than a minute, one begins to accept the arbitrary pieces for what they really are: Art. A viewer may feel as though they can relate to this work, the collection is grounding in the sense that it is not extreme or overwhelming, not abstract of complex but simplistic and recognizable. Warhol went through various different techniques for creating his art.

John Coplans states that “Warhol’s body of painting clearly undergoes three principal stages of development: 1) he would select an image and rework it informally; 2) he then began hand painting selected images to simulate mass production; and 3) he finally deals with mass production directly through the use of various reproductive processes” (Coplans 48). The paintings of Campbell’s Soup cans were the most famous of Andy Warhol’s hand-painted images.

Yet despite of the popularity of the canned soup paintings he abandoned the hand-painting technique, the soup cans were the last works he did using hand painting. He realized that the fame of the soup cans, besides the subject matter, came not from the painting technique he used but the concept of repetition, which was easier to achieve using a different process like silk-screening. This brings us to the notion of repetition in the Campbell’s Soup Cans. Each one of the 32 soup can paintings has its own identity, defined by the flavor it represents.

Yet one cannot ignore the banality created by repetition of their similarities when they are displayed together in a set. Through the use of repetition in the series Warhol shifts the emphasis from the image, depicted in each individual painting, to the irony created by the collection as a whole. Kirk Varnedoe explains this in the following statement: “It is important to the meaning and impact of Campbell’s Soup Cans that the industrial, same damned-thing-again-and-again repetition of the units be paired, for the viewer, with this sense of stagnant stability across decades and generations.

Without that some of the fullness of Warhol’s jibes at the ongoing ambivalences of modern city life – the marriages of ample abundance and stultifying narrowness, comfort and numbness, security and monotony ¬– would be denied. ” Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Cans exhibition hints at negative aspects of an American consumer society. John Coplans clarifies this: “Campbell’s canned soups – Warhol seems ironically to assert – are like people; their names, sexes, ages, origins, tastes and passions may well be different, but an advanced consumer-oriented, technological society squeezes them all into the same vat. (Coplans 50) One cannot arrive at this interpretation after seeing only a few paintings from the collection, repetition is crucial for the apprehension of this meaning. Warhol grasped the impact of expressing ideas through the use of repetition and adopted this technique in his future projects. After the Campbell’s Soup Cans exhibit Warhol began producing other works of pop art. One of which was Gold Marilyn Monroe (currently on display at MOMA). This work of art is silkscreen ink on synthetic polymer paint on canvas. It is rather large at 6 foot, 11 inches by 57 inches. (MOMA. rg) Warhol made this print the year screen legend Marilyn Monroe committed suicide. The gold background of the canvas is rather vast in comparison to the small depiction of Monroe in the center of the canvas. Looking at this piece, a viewer might feel unaffected, bored even, having seen the movie star’s face a million time prior to this. Warhol, who made the pop-art depictions of Marilyn Monroe famous, undermined the uniqueness of her photo by repetitively showing it in his work like “Untitled from Marilyn Monroe”. He presented her as an “infinitely reproducible image”. (MOMA. rg) However, after further thought, one may recall that Marilyn Monroe committed suicide around the same time Warhol produced this piece. He depicts the pop sensation in the direct center of the canvas as a flawless, smiling and seemingly happy. Noticing though, that she is surrounded by nothing but gold paint. One might infer that perhaps the smiling Marilyn does not truly feel happy but rather is experiencing the feeling of loneliness surrounded by artificial gold and glamour. Another pop art piece by Warhol was his Orange Car Crash Fourteen Times (currently on display at MOMA).

This is Silkscreen ink on synthetic polymer paint on two canvases. (MOMA. org) This piece at first appears bright and exciting, but after gaining a closer look, one will realize its disturbing quality. Upon discovering the replicated photo to be a brutal car accident, the bright orange color suddenly appears as blood orange, the photo, like a traumatic memory unable to be pushed out of one’s mind. The choice of color is everything. The nauseating orange evokes the blazing thrill of driving at great speed, the sudden terror at the loss of control behind the wheel, and the sickening collision as the metal crumples in around the driver.

Warhol repeats the photograph again and again, so that it resembles film stock. But there’s no moving image to be found at all. The irony of the abrupt stillness in this piece is that it seems to represent sudden death. Unlike the Monroe pieces, this one reflects violence and blood. A viewer may analyze this piece as representing the way media depicts tragedy, how news shows and papers will continue to print headline stories on tragic events until these events become popularized and embedded, much like this piece.

After the Campbell’s Soup Cans exhibit Warhol moved onto exploring other themes for his art, like pop stars and car crashes, but he did not stop painting Campbell’s canned soup. The soup can works appeared in different sizes, different colors, different contexts and even a combination of Elvis Presley and a soup can. Warhol also did a few paintings with 100 and more Campbell’s soup cans arranged into a grid. He probably made as many Campbell’s soup can paintings as he made pop star paintings. Was Warhol implying that the soup cans are pop stars as well?

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