Andy Warhol’s paintings of Campbell’s Soup cans transformed him into an overnight sensation when they were first exhibited in Los Angeles in 1962. His 32 Campbell’s Soup Cans are now in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York, taking a ubiquitous object found in nearly every American home and transforming it into high art. This seemingly simple motif represented many things: it was a sign of American efficiency, of ingenuity, and of democracy (Presidents and movie stars eat the same Campbell’s Soup as everybody else). Instantly recognizable as both an artistic and cultural icon, it is perhaps not surprising to hear that when asked by Glenn O'Brien what his favorite work was, in 1997 Warhol responded emphatically, “I guess the soup can” (G. O'Brien, “Interview: Andy Warhol,” High Times, August 1977, pp. 233-64, K. Goldsmith (ed.), I’ll Be Your Mirror: The Selected Andy Warhol Interviews: 1962-1987, New York, 2004, p. 242).
Small Campbell’s Soup Can (Chili Beef) is an incredibly rare work in that it is one of only three paintings of this particular size from 1962. Warhol most likely began the series in December of 1961 and continued until March 1962. Irving Blum, the legendary director of the Ferus Gallery, visited Warhol’s studio in May of 1962 and proposed showing the paintings in his Los Angeles gallery that summer. In conjunction with the 32 paintings that Warhol created for Blum’s show (the MoMA group), an additional 16 in various sizes were created during the same time, the present work, Small Campbell’s Soup Can (Chili Beef), belongs to this group.
Not long after it was finished, the painting was consigned to Eleanor Ward’s Stable Gallery in New York. There, it was acquired by Conrad Janis, the son of the renowned art dealer Sidney Janis. According to the Andy Warhol catalogue raisonné, Conrad Janis recalled seeing the exhibition at the Ferus Gallery in July and acquired the painting from Eleanor Ward in late 1962 or early 1963. While earlier soup can paintings were based upon photographs taken of a Campbell’s soup can, the Ferus series was based on a printed reproduction found in the Warhol archives, on a piece of Campbell’s stationary.
In Small Campbell’s Soup Can (Chili Beef), Warhol used a projector to enlarge the soup can logo, which he then traced directly onto the primed canvas. The care and precision with which each letter was painstakingly hand-painted is astonishing; there is virtually no evidence of the artist’s hand, which is remarkable given the nature in which they were produced. Later that year, Warhol would develop his silkscreen process that ultimately became his signature style. Small Campbell’s Soup Can (Chili Beef) predates that development, and is therefore one of the last of his early hand-painted images.
In 1963, when asked why he chose Campbell’s Soup as a suitable subject for his art, Warhol answered “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). Like his Coca-Cola bottles, Warhol deliberately took a product which was readily available to everyone to enshrine in his now form of high art. The constancy of the Campbell’s Soup can design was the perfect vehicle to explore the American desire for an easily definable identity. Seared into the popular consciousness, the continuity provided by Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Can implies a sense of belonging and security as the idolization of movie stars provides a glorified sense of the American-type. Warhol’s serial images perfectly reflect the inherent repetition of a consumer driven society.
Andy Warhol’s paintings and drawings of soup cans have come to be regarded as some of the most important works in 20th century art history. Marcel Duchamp recognized the impact they had. “If a man takes 50 Campbell’s soup cans and puts them on canvas,” he said “it is not the retinal image that concerns us. What interests us is the concept that he wants to put 50 Campbell’s soup cans on a canvas” (M. Duchamp, quoted in R. Crone, Andy Warhol, New York, 1970, p. 22). Taking a ubiquitous object and transforming it into high art showed Warhol’s playful and rebellious attitude towards painting. He began to undermine the traditional genre of still life by choosing an unorthodox subject matter and an informal composition, rendering it in uncomplicated, flat areas of shading and dispassionate lines as if it were a photograph or a tracing. Warhol would soon take this reinterpretation of still life a step further than he would replicate cans as if they were lined up on grocery shelves, denying the imagery any symbolic meaning or trace of the artist’s hand.
Showing Warhol in an early, transitional stage, this painting marks a crucial moment in the history of art. As the Metropolitan Museum of Art curator Henry Geldzahler would recall, Warhol’s work from this time felt as revolutionary as Duchamp’s once had. “The Campbell’s Soup Can was the Nude Descending a Staircase of pop art. Here was an image that became an overnight rallying point for the sympathetic and the bane of the hostile. Warhol captured the imagination of the media and the public as had no other artist of his generation. Andy was pop and pop was Andy” (H. Geldzahler, quoted in V. Bockris, The Life and Death of Andy Warhol, London, 1998, pp. 159-60).