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With Campbell’s Soup Can (Tomato) Andy Warhol takes as his subject a ubiquitous staple food found in millions of American homes and turns it into high art. With the unique candor he displayed in the best of his early Pop art works he appropriates the curved lines and iconic graphic imagery of a tin of canned soup and re-examines them in the context of their pure visual qualities.
Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Cans transformed him into an overnight sensation when they were first exhibited 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 a small narrow shelf that ran along the wall of the gallery in a way that suggested not only a gallery rail but also the long shelves in a grocery store. With these works, 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 are now in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. At the same time he produced this series, he also produced less than a dozen of what Irving Blum called “early versions”, single canvases that are virtually identical to the ones included in the exhibition except for the absence of metallic paint. The present work is one of these “early versions”. Warhol had just started using silkscreen that year, which makes Campbell’s Soup Can (Tomato) among the earliest examples of the medium through which he would forever transform the landscape of late 20th Century art. Furthermore, in using the commercial process of silkscreen to render this seemingly banal subject, and mediating it through a factory-based production system, Warhol questioned the sacrosanct notion of artistic subjectivity as well. The Ferus exhibition sparked heated criticism and even outrage from numerous critics and visitors, and catapulted Warhol and the challenge of Pop art into the public consciousness.
Of all the varieties of soup that Warhol produced, Tomato was his most valued. Not only did it have a strong resonance for the artist, it was also the very first variety with which he began working, enhancing and augmenting it with his own unique style. The initial idea for the soup can series has been credited to the interior designer, and later gallerist, Muriel Latow who told Warhol he should paint money, “or something people see every day, like a Campbell’s Soup can” (quoted in G. Indiana, Andy Warhol and the can that sold the world”, New York, 2010, p. 82). Warhol was so taken by the idea that next day he dispatched an assistant to a local store to buy a can of each of the varieties so he could start making a series of preparatory drawings. Excited by the range of visual possibilities this new form gave him Warhol began searching for an appropriate image from which to make the screen. He found what he was looking for in a drawing of a can of Tomato soup which he discovered on an envelope from the Campbell’s range of stationary.
The can of Campbell’s Tomato soup can was the ideal subject for Warhol’s pioneering kind of appropriation. This particular flavor perfectly suited Warhol’s purpose as it one of the original varieties and was still the company’s best selling product. Since the first Campbell’s soup cans appeared on the shelves 1897 this particular variety hold sold hundreds of millions of units and was instantly recognizable to the population at large. In addition to its omnipresent nature in the supermarkets and grocery stores of America, Campbell’s soup cans also appealed to Warhol interest in nature of graphic representation. The basic design of the label had become classic and had become a superb example of conveying information through the minimum of visual means. It was so successful that it had remained unchanged for decades. This fact was not lost on Warhol who, with has training as a graphic artist, appreciated the ability to convey a message with the minimum of visual means. As Kirk Varnadoe, the legendary curator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, points out, “In 1912, Printer’s Ink cited the Campbell’s label as an exemplary example of effective packaging, good for display purposes, and another article in 1915 on “Designing the label with the Sales ‘Punch’” included the Campbell’s can as an item with “sales force” and “excellent example” of coordination between advertising and packaging” (K. Varnadoe, High & Low: Modern Art and Popular Culture, New York, 1993, p. 345).
Although the cans of Campbell’s soup appealed to Warhol’s deep design sensibility as well as being attracted to their infinite reproducibility and ubiquitous nature, they also had a deeply personal association for the artist. Famously, when Warhol was asked about why he chose to paint Campbell's soup cans, he explained that it had personal significance to him as a consumer, "Because 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. Someone said my life has dominated me; I liked that idea" (A. Warhol, quoted in I'll Be Your Mirror: The Selected Andy Warhol Interviews, p. 18).
The critical reaction to the debut of Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Cans was varied; some in the art establishment praised their freshness and modernity while others were less vociferous in their praise. In a letter to Warhol that Irving Blum wrote after the Ferus show, he enthralled Warhol with the impact the images were still having on him, “It would be rather beside the point to attempt to tell you how intensely your series of paintings continues to engage me. They are installed in my apartment and are a constant source of stimulation and pure pleasure. Thank you.” (as quoted in G. Frei and N. Printz, eds., The Andy Warhol Catalogue Raisonné of Paintings and Sculptures 1961-1963, vol. 1, New York, 2001, p. 74.).
Campbell’s Soup Can (Tomato) is one of the most iconic pieces in the private collection of Robert Shapazian, the legendary scholar, curator, collector and gallerist. He began to develop his discerning connoisseur’s eye when he was 13, importing antique objects from Thailand, selling some of them to museums and keeping some for himself. This collection grew over the years to span Asian art, French 18th century furniture and even Russian avant-garde books. In addition he built up an extraordinary collection of works by Andy Warhol. When he donated one of these canvases, an early hand-painted soup can, to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the curator, Stephanie Barron, remembered him as intensely serious and dedicated collector, “I was struck then and through all my time of knowing him with his tremendous seriousness and wide knowledge and great appetite for all kinds of art. He was a scholar and someone who delved seriously into art and artists who mattered to him.” (as quoted by S. Douglas, `In Memoriam: Gagosian Director Robert Shapazian’, June 28, 2010 accessed via www.artinfo.com).
Andy Warhol’s’ Campbell’s Soup Can (Tomato) is arguably one of the most iconic images of the twentieth century. Painted in 1962, at the very birth of the Pop art movement, it contains symbolism that shook the foundations of the art world to its very core. One of the first of Warhol’s silkscreen paintings, the vigorous outlines and delicate patterns of light and shadow are distilled into a conventional, yet strikingly modern image which has gone on to influence popular culture for over fifty years. It was also a deeply personal work for Warhol. When asked to name which of his works was most special to him, he said it was his Campbell’s Soup Can. "I love it", he said, adding, "I just paint things I always thought were beautiful, things you use every day and never think about…. I just do it because I like it" (cited in D. Bourdon, Warhol, New York, 1989, p. 90).
Post-War & Contemporary Art