‘I love soup, and I love it when other people love soup, too… You know, when I was little, my mother always used to feed us this kind of soup. But now she’s gone, and sometimes when I have soup I remember her and I feel like she’s right here with me again.’
(A. Warhol, quoted in D. Bourdon, Warhol, New York 1989, p. 99).
Executed in 1986, the year before Warhol’s death, Campbell’s Soup Box (Chicken Rice) represents one of his final tributes to the brand that had effectively launched his artistic career. Situated at the peak of a lifelong fascination with commodity, there is a retrospective poignancy in Warhol’s recapitulation of one of his most important motifs. It was his 1962 work 32 Campbell’s Soup Cans that had thrust him into the public eye almost overnight; yet, for Warhol, the significance of the brand stretched even further back – to childhood memories of eating soup with his mother. Warhol’s devotion to the image of the soup can was feverishly pursued throughout the 1960s, yet took something of a back seat during the following decade. When Campbell’s Soup Company approached Warhol in 1985 to commission a set of silkscreens devoted to their dry soup mixes, the result was consequently a captivating twist on the original can, a reworking of the image that had become almost synonymous with Warhol’s celebrated pop practice. In a 1985 diary entry, Warhol writes, ‘I got home […] and I tried the Campbell’s dry soup. It was good. And no accessories in it.’ (A. Warhol, quoted in P. Hackett (ed.), The Andy Warhol Diaries, New York 1989, p. 689). Rendered in soft tones of red, blue and yellow, with a dark black outline against a crisp white background, Campbell’s Soup Box (Chicken Rice) attests to this sense of classic simplicity – the same that Warhol so fondly remembered as a young boy.
The relationship between nostalgia and reinvention was crucial to Warhol’s late period, in which he looked back over his oeuvre and redeployed some of his most iconic images in new configurations. In his Reversals and Retrospectives, the familiar faces of Warhol’s hall of fame – from Marilyn to Mona Lisa – are subject to his skillful self-appropriation, revived with new colours, dimensions and orientations. The soup box series, however, adds a new dimension of playfulness to Warhol’s postmodern vocabulary: as the cylindrical can becomes the square carton, the entire concept of soup is subject to a paradigm shift, in which the same product is transposed to a fundamentally new state – dry as opposed to liquid. The subtle interplay between repetition and renewal is at the same time confounded by Warhol’s quotidian, unassuming subject matter, generating a dialogue between the banal and the profound in a manner typical of the artist. Indeed, his much-quoted statement that 'I used to drink [Campbell’s Soup]. I used to have the same lunch every day for twenty years’ suggests that, for Warhol, the very notion of soup went hand in hand with that of repetition (A. Warhol interviewed by G. Swanson, 'What is Pop Art? Interviews with Eight Painters (Part I)', in Art News, November 1963, p. 26).