Andy Warhol's Campbell's Soup Cans transformed him into an overnight sensation when they were first exhibited at the Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles in 1962. It was his first one person exhibition organized by Irving Blum, the legendary and visionary, director of the Ferus Gallery. The exhibition featured thirty-two "portraits" of soup cans, each identical except for the flavor inscribed on their labels, these revolutionary paintings were displayed on small white shelves that ran along the perimeter of the gallery in a manner that suggested both a gallery rail and display shelves in grocery stores. Warhol took on the tradition of still-life painting, declaring a familiar household brand of packaged food a legitimate subject in the age of post-war economic recovery.
The 32 Campbell's Soup Cans, now in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York, were the first of Warhol's works to be structured repetitively in a series, and the individual examples, such as Small Torn Campbell's Soup Can (Pepper Pot), consolidate the idea of Warholian repetition within a single work. The Campbell's Soup Cans are a crucial moment in art history when seriality, photography, monochrony and display undermine the role of traditional easel painting. The serial breakdown of the painterly object and its repetition was not just a mode of exhibition, but an aesthetic strategy.
Warhol remained famously elusive on his choice of subject. When asked about what he thought of tomato soup, he simply stated, "I love it", ambiguously adding, "I just paint things I always thought were beautiful, things you use every day and never think about. I'm working on soups and I've been doing some paintings of money. I just do it because I like it" (cited in D. Bourdon, Warhol, New York, p. 90). He revealed a personal attachment for the motif, stating, "I used to drink it. I used to have the same lunch every day for twenty years. I guess the same thing over and over again" (cited in G. Swenson, Art News, November 1963, p. 26). Tapping into the nostalgia of every American's childhood, he reinforced the emblematic resonance of Campbell's.
Collaborating with Edward Wallowitch, a professional photographer, who met Warhol through Nathan Gluck, Warhol's first studio assistant, Warhol and Wallowitch worked on projects in which Wallowitch photographed, Campbell's Soup Cans, Coca Cola Bottles and Dollar Bills. Warhol then presented them, in paintings and drawings, either alone, in groups, or manipulated, through tearing, folding or as the as the Dollar Bills, rolled or crumpled. The Wallowitch photographs were the source image for some of the most iconic of Warhol's subjects, Campbell's Soup, Coca Cola bottles and money.
Warhol matched the implacable objectivity of his Soup Cans with an equally impenetrable style. His unpainterly, inexpressive technique mimicked the commercial art of the soup's packaging and bore no evidence of the artist's hand in what comprised a radical departure from his Abstract Expressionist predecessors. He traced his images directly from photographs or used stencils to facilitate the precise, mechanical mode to which he aspired, hand-painting within his penciled delineations. His graphic style and slick handling emphasized the surface of the image, allowing no visual penetration and conforming to Warhol's life-long obsession with superficiality.
Small Torn Campbell's Soup Can (Pepper Pot) shows a carefully torn label, and exposed metal of the soup can. Warhol had not yet discovered silk-screening; so he traced outlines from photographic images and stencils and hand-painted within these delineations. Leaving some pencil marks visible in Small Torn Campbell's Soup Can (Pepper Pot). To achieve the appearance of the can's exposed surfaces Warhol brushed diluted black casein emulsion in washes that he allowed to puddle and bead. Compared to the sign-like quality of his unsullied cans, those with torn labels have an elegiac quality. Of these works, David Bourdon states, "Like memento mori, they are metaphorical reminders that all living things must die; even packaged food, after all, has a limited shelf life" (D. Bourdon, Ibid, p. 92).
Warhol broached the subject of mortality throughout his career with his silk-screened paintings of human skulls (1976) and aged self-portraits (1986). Certainly, Small Torn Campbell's Soup Can (Pepper Pot) registers the passage of time through the physical actions--opening, peeling, tearing and crushing--that has been imposed upon it. Closely related in theme by way of destruction are the disaster paintings that followed closely on the heels of the crushed soup cans in early 1963.
The global aesthetic atmosphere at the time of Warhol's debut exhibition was summarized by Henry Geldzahler in 1963, who said "After the heroic years of Abstract Expressionism a younger generation of artists is working in a new American regionalism, but this time because the mass media, the regionalism is nationwide, and even exportable to Europe, for we have carefully prepared and reconstructed Europe in our own image since 1945 so that two kinds of American im, Kline, Pollock, de Kooning on the one hand, and the Pop artists on the other are becoming comprehensible abroad" (cited in P. Selz, ed., Arts Magazine, April 1963, p. 18ff). In the advanced, European countries such as France, Italy and West Germany, Warhol's work was embraced as a kind of high culture, low culture cult of all things American (cited in K. McShine, ed., Andy Warhol a Retrospective, New York, p. 57).