Big Campbell's Soup Can with Can Opener, from the renowned collection of Barney A. Ebsworth, is a highly important and rare early painting by Andy Warhol showing the great icon which quite literally changed the course of Post-War Art: the Campbell's soup can. This large picture dates from early 1962 - it was acquired by Emily and Burton Tremaine, the great collectors, in May of that year, and in July was exhibited at the Wadsworth Athenaeum, Hartford, becoming the first picture by Warhol to be shown in a museum. There are only ten large scale Campbell soup cans and the majority are in museum collections including the Menil Collection, Houston, the Kunsthaus, Zurich, the Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Dsseldorf, and two in The Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh.
In May 1962, Warhol had been featured in an article alongside three other perceived protagonists of Pop, Roy Lichtenstein, James Rosenquist and Wayne Thiebaud, in an article in Time magazine entitled "The Slice-of-Cake School". In that article, Warhol was shown in his Lexington Avenue studio, eating soup out of a can of Campbell's Scotch Broth, standing next to a group of paintings including Big Campbell's Soup Can with Can Opener. 'I just paint things I always thought were beautiful, things you use every day and never think about. I'm working on soups, and I've been doing some paintings of money. I just do it because I like it' (A. Warhol, quoted in "The Slice-of-Cake School", Time, May 11, 1962, p. 52). It comes as no surprise that, when he was asked in 1977 by Glenn O'Brien what his favorite work was, he said, 'I guess the soup can' (G. O'Brien, 'Interview: Andy Warhol", High Times, August 1977, in K. Goldsmith, ed., I'll Be Your Mirror: The Selected Andy Warhol Interviews: 1962-1987, New York, 2004, p. 242).
The idea for the soup can came from one of Warhol's friends. Warhol was very open about the fact that he would canvas people for subject matter, feeling that this increased the sense in which he was exposed to the stream and vibrations of popular culture. At the end of 1961, this was all the more the case as he had met with a rude shock. When he had managed to convince Leo Castelli's assistant, Ivan Karp, to visit his studio to look at his recent works, which were based on comic book images, he was disappointed to be told that there was another artist who, unbeknownst to him, was working on similar material: Roy Lichtenstein. Castelli already represented Lichtenstein, and therefore refused to take another comic strip artist into his gallery. Warhol then turned Muriel Latow, a friend and designer, asking her what he should paint, demanding something personal that would distinguish him from his contemporaries. Latow, who later became a celebrated interior designer and writer when she moved to Great Britain, replied that she would only tell him if he paid her. Accordingly, Warhol wrote out a check for $50. Latow asked him, 'What do you like most in the whole world?' Warhol replied money, to which Latow told him he should paint money, before continuing, 'You should paint something that everybody sees every day, that everybody recognizes...like a can of soup' (M. Latow, quoted in V. Bockris, The Life and Death of Andy Warhol, London, 1998, p. 143). The next day, Warhol sent his mother - with whom he lived in Lexington Avenue - out to the grocery store to buy all the flavors of Campbell's Soup she could find.
Latow's suggestion had an immediate impact, and soup-related paintings followed swiftly. Warhol used several different sources in order to create his Campbell's Soup images. This use of different sources and techniques resulted in several different groups of pictures of the soup cans. The first appears to have been Campbell's Soup Can (Tomato Rice) of late 1961, now in the Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh. Despite being based on a photographic source, that work was highly painterly, including areas of shading and deliberate dripping of the paint. Warhol subsequently refined his techniques, either using projection or, in the multiple-image pictures, stencils to give a precise rendering of the soup cans.
The individual soup cans reached an apogee in the famous group of thirty-two small canvases, showing each of the Campbell's flavors, which are now in the Museum of Modern Art, New York. When the West Coast dealer Irving Blum visited Warhol's studio around the period of the Time article in mid-1962, he was fascinated by the soup can paintings and was surprised to find that the artist had no representation. Blum offered Warhol an exhibition at the Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles for the summer of 1962. Warhol sent out the entire sequence of thirty-two flavors, which he presented uniformly in the gallery on a shelf in order to blur the distinction between gallery and shop, making an open assault on the commercialism of the rarefied art world.
The Ferus exhibition was Warhol's first one-man exhibition, and launched his career. Warhol and his Campbell Soup Cans became inextricably linked.
As Warhol's friend, the legendary curator Henry Geldzahler would recall, '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, Ibid., 1998, pp. 159-60).
While the Ferus-type images of Campbell's Soup cans are often considered 'portraits,' Big Campbell's Soup Can with Can Opener belongs to another group described as the 'still life' soup cans. The reason for this is clearer in Big Campbell's Soup Can with Can Opener than in any of the other large-scale examples. In this work, the composition does not focus on the tightly framed image of the can itself, but instead takes a couple of steps back, showing the tin in the process of being opened, with the opener itself visible in a unique variation.
The photographs that Warhol used as a source had been taken by his friend Edward Wallowitch, with whom he had already collaborated during the late 1950s. In this way, Warhol was taking his 'readymade' source material yet was controlling its presentation from an early stage. This intervention on Warhol's own part, controlling the images that he immortalized on the pictures surface, is reflected in the interventions with the cans themselves, demonstrated in the torn labels and twisted metal of the pictures in this rare group. In his recent book on the artist, as Arthur C. Danto discussed the violence in enacted against the cans in these pictures:
'there were paintings of Campbell's soup cans in which the cans were undergoing some sort of martyrdom - being pierced with a can opener, or crushed, or flayed by having the label torn off. These belong in spirit with the various paintings of human disasters that he was shortly to turn to - car crashes, airplane crashes, and the like. The formats he discovered for showing the cans feel almost like formats for religious painting - choruses, assemblies, iconostases, where the cans were understood as vessels for our daily soup' (A. C. Danto, Andy Warhol, New Haven & London, 2009, p. 37).
Big Campbell's Soup Can with Can Opener is all the more complex and insidious as Warhol has contrasted the dynamism of the violence of opening the can with the emphatic crispness of the paint treatment, by which he has kept to a minimum, the sense that this is a hand-made object. Looking at the lack of shadow and the treatment of the reflected light on the metal of the tin and of the opener, it becomes clear that Warhol has deliberately converted the photographic source into something that appears more mechanical than it is, that resembles an image from a magazine or an instruction manual. Warhol is masking the hand-painted nature of Big Campbell's Soup Can with Can Opener, which is evident on closer inspection in the traces of pencil on the surface and the rather lush red brushstrokes on the label.
A more significant ancestor of Big Campbell's Soup Can with Can Opener was Marcel Duchamp. There is a clear cousinship between the artist who took a urinal as a 'readymade' and presented it as Fountain in 1917, and the artist who takes an image of an almost endemic soup can and presents it as art. Of course, where Duchamp merely signed his work, Warhol has carried out a range of transformations on Big Campbell's Soup Can with Can Opener. Yet clearly, the image itself is a form of readymade, coming with its own slew of associations. It also distinctly invokes the world of manufacture, celebrating it in a new, deadpan manner. It is telling that Duchamp himself, whom Warhol met several times over the years, took an interest in the soup can pictures, pointing out that, 'If you take a Campbell's Soup can and repeat it fifty times, you are not interested in the retinal image. What interests you is the concept that wants to put fifty Campbell's Soup cans on a canvas' (M. Duchamp, quoted in D. Bourdon, Warhol, New York, 1995, p. 88).
In the case of Big Campbell's Soup Can with Can Opener, the link between Duchamp and Warhol is underscored by the presence of the can opener, which recalls the 'Erotomechanics' pioneered by the French artist and his friend and fellow iconoclast, Francis Picabia. Their mysterious pseudo-technical constructions find a deliberately prosaic descendent in this soup can, with its opener rakishly sticking out at a jaunty angle. In his pictures of Campbell's Soup cans, Warhol was highlighting the world of mass production that most people tried to ignore, which they considered only a convenience or a necessary evil. However, Warhol saw that it had become a fundamental part of modern existence and boldly emblazoned it upon his canvases: in the hand-painted Big Campbell's Soup Can with Can Opener it is invoked as a subject, but would later come to the fore through his adoption of screen-printing. Crucial too was Warhol's experiences in advertising. Rather than ignoring the world of commercial art, he was co-opting the visual language that it used and with which the modern audience was now completely conversant. The use of commercial images certainly had its precedence in American art; as early as 1924, Stuart Davis had explored the use of commercial imagery in his painting Odol, which is now in the Museum of Modern Art, New York.
Perhaps the closest kin that Big Campbell's Soup Can with Can Opener had in terms of artistic ancestry dated from a similar period, and can likewise be seen as a descendent of Dada: Jasper Johns's Painted Bronze of 1960. In that sculpture, Johns presented a likeness of two Ballantine Ale cans next to each other on a base, their labels painted to the point of near verisimilitude. Johns, like his great friend and fellow artist Robert Rauschenberg, is often seen as one of the people who bridged the gap between the hegemony of the New York School and Pop. Rauschenberg, especially in his Combines, took the ephemera from the world around him and incorporated it into his compositions, such as his celebrated 1955 work, Bed, a painting consisting of his made bed. Similarly, Johns' took elements from the world around him such as flags, targets, maps, numbers and, in this case, beer cans, and converted them into works of art.
The great collectors and Emily and Burton Tremaine, first visited Warhol's studio in May 1961, and half a decade later Emily Tremaine would recall that, 'we thought he was naive, a new douanier Rousseau - how wrong we were there. Now I think Andy may be the most complex of the lot' (E. Tremaine, quoted in G. Hedberg, 'The History of the Tremaine Collection', pp. 15-23, The Tremaine Collection: 20th Century Masters exh. cat., Hartford, 1984, p. 19). On their second visit with Ivan Karp to Warhol's studio, the Tremaines purchased Big Campbell's Soup Can with Can Opener as well as Campbell's Soup Can (Pepper Pot), A Boy for Meg, S & H Green Stamps, and eventually purchased a total of fifteen works by Andy Warhol including a Marilyn Monroe Diptych, now in the Tate Gallery.
The Tremaines were already influential collectors before they became involved with Pop Art, having acquired a large range of works including: Hans Arp, Georges Braque, Alexander Calder, Stuart Davis, Robert Delaunay, Jasper Johns, Paul Klee, Franz Kline, Henri Matisse, Piet Mondrian - his celebrated Victory Boogie-Woogie of 1942-44 - Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko among many others. Emily Tremaine had been greatly influenced by her cousin A. Everett "Chick Austin" the legendary Director of the Wadsworth Athenaeum from 1927-1945. Austin was a first American museum director to acquire works from Mondrian and Calder and hosted the first Picasso exhibition in the United States. But their involvement with Pop marked a new beginning for them, and resulted in their acquiring of masterpieces by Roy Lichtenstein, Claes Oldenburg, Tom Wesselmann, and of course Warhol himself.
Emily herself recalled her encounter with Warhol, whose studio she visited after seeing Oldenburg's Ray Gun Store:
'Ivan Karp told us of Andy Warhol and we went to his house on Lexington Avenue. Here we found Andy was commenting in a way not unsimilar to that of Oldenburg on images in his environment. His house was directly opposite a super market. We saw the multiple soup can paintingsand the large single soup cans like great icons, and green trading stamps that looked like little poems. We made several visits to Andy's studio - Andy was usually playing two stereos simultaneously, one belting out Bach, the other blasting Rock and Roll - and came to think of both Andy and his work as perhaps the most enigmatical and complex of any of the artists we were beginning to know' (Emily Tremaine, quoted in 'Emily Tremaine: Her Own Thoughts', pp. 25-31, Ibid, p. 29).
Big Campbell's Soup Can with Can Opener joined the Ebsworth collection in 1986; and not unlike the Tremaines it presented Ebsworth with a new but logical direction for his iconic collection of American Art, which includes Edward Hopper's famous Chop Suey. Chop Suey, along with sixty-four other American paintings will be given by Ebsworth to the Seattle Art Museum. The Tremaines were also generous donors to Museums gave nearly 200 works to various museums and institutions. In the late 1970's for the very first time the Tremaines decided to sell a few works including Jasper John's Three Flags to the Whitney Museum of American Art, Andy Warhol's Marilyn Monroe Diptych to the Tate Gallery, and Big Campbell's Soup Can with Can Opener to the legendary collector and Warner Brother's Chairman Ted Ashley. The purpose of the sales was to allow the Tremaines to broaden their support for the many charitable causes. Again, like the Tremaines, Ebsworth is selling a work for the first time to give him the opportunity to support his many charitable and philanthropic interests including the completion of a public chapel designed by Tadao Ando.
The legacy of this iconic work testifies to its rarity and importance. Acquired by two legendary collectors, the Tremaines and Barney A. Ebsworth, who both recognized Big Campbell's Soup Can with Can Opener as a masterpiece that defined and symbolized a historic and indelible moment in the development in Post-War Art, by one of the most important artists of the 20th Century.