This early hand-painted work from a series that changed the face of 20th-century art is a highlight of the Post-War & Contemporary Art Evening Sale in New York
Andy Warhol’s Big Campbell’s Soup Can with Can Opener (Vegetable), 1962, is an early hand-painted work from a series that changed the face of 20th-century art. It is the only example of the artist’s iconic Campbell’s Soup Can paintings to feature a can opener, and is the first of 11 works that represent his largest single depictions of the motif. Seven of these are held in museum collections.
Campbell’s Soup was Warhol’s first true subject, pursued to the point of obsession between 1961 and 1962. These works effectively launched the artist’s career, and would later be described by Warhol as his favourite paintings.
This work, offered in New York on 17 May, marks the start of a narrative sequence — the so-called ‘still lifes’ — which together form a meditation on temporality. Here the can opener is just breaking the can’s metal seal. As the series unfolds, the can’s lid is wrenched fully open, its label is peeled off and, finally, it is crushed and flattened. It is a reminder that even the most inconsequential and solid-seeming objects are subject to decay.
Executed during the early months of 1962 — predating the artist’s silkscreens — Big Campbell’s Soup Can with Can Opener (Vegetable) was one of the first of his works to be captured in images of Warhol’s studio, printed in Time magazine in May that year. Now elevated to the realm of high art, the most banal domestic commodity would never be seen in the same way again. The can thus becomes Warhol’s first memento mori, setting the stage for the Marilyn, Elvis and Death and Disaster motifs that would follow.
The techniques that Warhol explored through the still-lifes demonstrate his extraordinary draughtsmanship — honed during his previous career as an illustrator — while simultaneously paving the way for the silkscreen works that would come to dominate his practice. His earliest ‘portrait’ soup cans were based on printed illustrations that were projected, traced, and then meticulously painted onto canvas. The ‘serial’ soup cans that followed were Warhol’s first repetitive structures, created using a stencil derived from a photograph by Edward Wallowitch.
Although Warhol would return to the Campbell’s Soup can intermittently in the course of his career — briefly in 1965, and later as part of his Retrospectives and Reversals in the 1970s — it was during the initial period of 1961-62 that the subject made its boldest conceptual claims.
Purchased at that time by the celebrated collectors Emily and Burton Tremaine, Big Campbell’s Soup Can with Can Opener (Vegetable) became the first of Warhol’s pictures to be shown in a museum when it was exhibited at the Wadsworth Atheneum two months later. It was subsequently purchased by Warner Brothers executive Ted Ashley, and in 1987 it became the first post-war American artwork to enter the prestigious collection of Barney A. Ebsworth, where it remained for the next 23 years.