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Andy Warhol (1928-1987)
Andy Warhol (1928-1987)

Campbell's Onion Soup Box

Andy Warhol (1928-1987)
Campbell's Onion Soup Box
signed and dated 'Andy Warhol 86' (on the reverse)
synthetic polymer and silkscreen inks on canvas
14 x 14 in. (35.5 x 35.5 cm.)
Executed in 1986.
Martin Lawrence Gallery, New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner, 1986
M. Blinder and M. Kohn, Warhol Campbell’s Soup Boxes, Van Nuys, 1986, p. 31, no. 120 (illustrated in color).

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Emily Woodward
Emily Woodward

Lot Essay

Andy Warhol’s soup cans poured into America’s consciousness in 1962, when they were first displayed at the Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles, simultaneously ushering in the Pop era and becoming an instant icon. The 32 silkscreened “portraits” of the Campbell’s cans, each a different flavor, incorporated much of what would become Warhol’s most famous tropes: the commonplace banality of the subject, the serial repetition of an image, and the use of silkscreen as a medium, which, like the actual packaging of the soup can itself, revealed no trace of the artist’s hand.

While Warhol’s canny choice of subject matter managed to symbolize both postwar industrial prosperity and American capitalism, and came to epitomize his concept of art as a commodity that could be produced assembly-line style in a “Factory,” Warhol was also a genuine fan of the soup itself. “I used to drink it. I used to have the same lunch every day, for twenty years…” he said (G.R. Swenson, “What is Pop Art, Answers from 8 Painters, Part I,” ARTnews, November 1963, p. 26). In 1977, Warhol cited his soup can as his own favorite image to date (A. Warhol, quoted in I’ll Be Your Mirror, The Selected Andy Warhol Interviews, K. Goldsmith (ed.) New York, 2004, p. 242).

Warhol’s game-changing transformation of an everyday object—whether a soup can, Brillo box or Coca-Cola bottle—into a legitimate still-life subject was his own invention. But the creation of the soup box portraits, which came about more than 20 years later, was blatantly commercial: the result of a commission by the Campbell Soup Company. According to a company executive, Campbell approached Warhol, “because of his overwhelming identification with the can…We figured we did so well without him, then maybe we could do as well in the dry soup business if we did ask him” (David Bourdon, Warhol, New York, 1989, p. 397). Irving Blum, whose Ferus Gallery had become synonymous with Warhol’s original soup cans, called this venture “purely promotional” (Ibid., p. 298), although not as promotional as Warhol’s 1986 Absolut Vodka ad, which kicked off the famous campaign.

Unlike the first soup can paintings, which were as deliberately sterile as the real object, Warhol took a more playful approach to his soup boxes, in some cases superimposing brightly colored silkscreened line drawings onto an image of the packaging, and eventually constructing several soup box sculptures akin to his Brillo boxes.

Andy Warhol's Soup Box (Onion), 1985, depicts a somewhat sketchy image of the red-and-white package of Campbell’s Onion soup, showing two bowls of soup; one on the left, containing the onion dip the soup was popularly used for, and one on the right, full of soup, accompanied by an oversized soupspoon. The large onion bits in the spoon and bowls are irregular noodle-like squiggles. This more impressionistic approach to his famous subject turns it into a postmodern reference to his earlier work—in effect, Warhol is appropriating himself.

“The Campbell’s soup people loved the painting, the pink one of the soup box,” Warhol said in his diaries in September, 1985. (The Andy Warhol Diaries, ed. by Pat Hackett, New York, 1989, pp. 680 and 681) A week or so later, on October 3, he remarked, “Went to the Whitney. I was there to 'advertise’ my Campell’s [sic] soup box painting. And for all the work and publicity, I should’ve charged them like $250,000, I mean they’re a huge company—instead of just the cost of a portrait. We must be getting desperate. Me standing there twenty years later and still with a Campbell’s soup thing, it felt like a New Yorker cartoon.”

But the soup box portraits stand on their own as Warhol’s latter-day spin on his own iconic imagery. Warhol further deconstructed the image in some later iterations, and it is probably no mistake that in one jazzy version, Soup Box (Onion), 1986, the Campbell’s logo is cropped to more or less to just spell the word “Camp.”

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