Andy Warhol's Campbell's Elvis is the first painting in which he superimposed two of his most iconic images onto a single canvas. He chose to combine a Campbell's Soup Can with repeated images of Elvis Presley, joining two major themes that dominated his career: consumer culture's growth and celebrity's power. This is also one of Warhol's first silkscreened canvases. He explored the process's visual possibilities in Campbell's Elvis, as he would continue to do throughout his innovative career.
Warhol deliberated long and hard over the choice of images for this canvas. Taking two popular culture images and combining them into this striking and complex composition, Warhol began his lifelong comment on popular culture's commodification. Warhol prophetically and foresightedly recognized that fame is as much a marketable product as cans of Campbell's soup, this even before the birth of modern celebrity obsessed culture.
Warhol did not give prominence to either the soup can or Elvis, carefully screening each image in exactly the same detail. Discussing the painting, Pat Hackett, Warhol's secretary at the time, recalls, "Like the more mysterious Campbell's Elvis, six brooding Presley faces intermix with the large turned-on-its-side label for 'Campbell's Condensed', and it's hard to even tell which screen was laid down first, the 'Campbell's' or the Elvis', on the red, silver and yellow canvas." (P. Hackett, quoted in L. Lumpkin, ed., The Bellagio Gallery of Fine Arts: Impressionist and Modern Masters, Las Vegas, 1998, pp. 236-238). She also points out that Warhol very deliberately chose an image of Elvis from the beginning of the rocker's career. "The photograph of Elvis that Andy used to make this silkscreen was not a then current oneAndy had to reach all the way back to into the 1950s for a publicity shot of the pre-Army, top-of-the-charts Elvis; a young, brooding, unjaded phenomenon with high, voluptuous hair and thick, sullen lips. The power of the famous face in the original photo is such that it manages to penetrate through" (Ibid.).
The halftone impressions of Elvis' head mingle with the soup can label's red to create a unique depth and complexity that challenges traditional composition and perspective. This surreal quality was immediately recognized by the painting's first owner, the Spanish master Surrealist, Salvador Dalí. He knew Warhol personally and the work remained in Dalí's private collection for many years. Pat Hackett explains, "It's [easy] to see how the cohesive incongruity of the images in this particular painting of Andy's appealed so strongly to Salvador Dalí that he was determined to own the Campbell's Elvishe must have been very surprised when he first encountered Campbell's Elvis since there was very little else of Andy's that contains elements even approaching surreal" (Ibid., pp. 238-239).