When, in a 1977 interview, Andy Warhol was asked to name his favorite painting from his entire career, Warhol cited his Campbell's Soup Can (A. Warhol, quoted in I'll Be Your Mirror: The Selected Andy Warhol Interviews, K. Goldsmith (ed.), New York, 2004, p. 242). The image of his silk-screened soup can has indeed become an enduring Pop art emblem, and was key in triggering Warhol's rapid ascent to fame in the early 1960s as the ultimate art world provocateur. Painted in 1962, Campbell's Soup Can (Pepper Pot) is an important early example of Warhol's devotion to this subject. The painting has been maintained in exceptional condition since George S. Rosenthal purchased the work from Irving Blum's Ferus Gallery soon after Warhol sensationally debuted there.
The famed Ferus Gallery exhibition of Warhol's work in Los Angeles in 1962 was comprised of 32 paintings of Campbell's soup cans, each depicting a different flavor, painted in a uniform manner on 20 x 16 inch canvases. Warhol had just started using silkscreen that year, which makes the present work among the earliest examples of the medium through which he would forever transform the landscape of late 20th Century art. The present painting is what Blum designated an "early version" of the Pepper Pot soup can featured in the exhibition, virtually identical to the one included in the exhibition save for the absence of metallic paint. By isolating a familiar commercial image (taken from the envelope used by the Campbell's soup corporation), expanding it to a heroic scale, and subjecting it to serial repetition, Warhol reflected back at the viewer questions about the commodity culture's dominance in contemporary American society. 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. This double punch's effects reverberate to the present day. The 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.
George S. Rosenthal was a prescient collector, acquiring Campbell's Soup Can (Pepper Pot) just weeks after the infamous Ferus exhibition. In late 1962, the painting was also included in the famous exhibition "New Paintings of Common Objects" at the Pasadena Art Museum. This seminal exhibition, curated by Walter Hopps, helped set the terms of the discourse around Pop art, and featured three works by Warhol alongside others by Ed Ruscha and Roy Lichtenstein and Jasper Johns.
Rosenthal had distinguished himself in the field of graphic design a decade before, as one of the publishers of Portfolio, which became one of the most influential graphic design magazines of the 20th Century. Rosenthal was recruited by his friend Frank Zachary to act as the magazine's co-publisher. This was because Rosenthal's family owned a printing company called Zebra Press, which published pictorial paperbacks, and innovatively produced affordable photojournalist books including Weegee's legendary Naked City. Rosenthal, who was also a photographer, had graduated from the Moholy-Nagy school, and was close to artists such as Man Ray and Maholy-Nagy, and conceived Portfolio as a luxurious and avant-garde publication, which brought together the finest quality paper and printing methods with his New Bauhaus aesthetic inspiration. Alexey Brodovitch, acclaimed as the visionary art director of Harper's Bazaar between 1934 and 1958, served as Portfolio's art director. To maintain the publication's aesthetic integrity, they chose to forgo advertising, which made it commercially impractical; although it lasted only three issues, its impact was immediate and wide-ranging. Portfolio featured art as an essential part of the avant-garde layouts Brodovitch oversaw, including articles on artists such as Goya and Calder, as well as a feature on graffiti art. Most famously, Hans Namuth's cinematic photographs of Jackson Pollock flinging paint upon his canvases appeared in Portfolio's third issue in 1951.
With his discerning visual judgment, Rosenthal was quick to appreciate the graphic, eye-catching character essential to Warhol's depiction of the Campbell's soup can. Warhol, of course, was deeply influenced throughout his life by his roots as graphic designer. After graduating from art school, Warhol created illustrations for various fashion magazines, including Harper's Bazaar during Brodovitch's reign.
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. In a 1963 interview, when asked why he chose his subject, Warhol explained in his deadpan manner, "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). He immortalized the Campbell's trademark, which was a turning point in the history of Pop art, leading to the Campbell's soup can becoming synonymous with Warhol himself.