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Andy Warhol’s Small Campbell’s Soup Can (Chili Beef) is an icon of American Pop Art. Spare and elegant in its simplicity, the painting was meticulously hand-painted in early 1962, while Warhol was still living at 1342 Lexington Avenue in New York. An incredibly rare work that is one of only three paintings of this particular size from 1962, the painting has a flat, mechanical appearance nearly devoid of brushstroke or evidence of the artist’s hand, that likens it more to contemporary advertising than traditional painterly representation. Perhaps because of this, when the Campbell’s Soup Cans were shown at the Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles in the summer of 1962, critics and the general public alike were astounded. A veritable success de scandale, this exhibition transformed Warhol into an overnight sensation, so that today, there is perhaps no greater emblem more synonymous with Pop Art than Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Can.
Warhol most likely began the Campbell’s Soup Can paintings in December of 1961 and continued until March 1962. Small Campbell’s Soup Can (Chili Beef) relates to a group of 32 soup can paintings that Warhol made during this era, one painting for each kind of soup manufactured by Campbell’s at the time. 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, an additional 16 were created during the same time. Small Campbell’s Soup Can (Chili Beef) belongs to this group.
Not long after it was created, 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 Small Campbell’s Soup Can (Chili Beef), Warhol chose to use metallic paints, in both silver and gold, to delineate the can’s features. Most notably, in the central medallion, in the word “SOUP” and along the band of fleur-de-lys on the lower edge, Warhol’s use of gold heightens the visual impact of the image. Silver is employed along the can’s upper and lower rim, which highlights the curves of the soup can, lending it a more palpable three-dimensionality than others in the series. Warhol used silver and gold only intermittently in the other soup cans from this year. The small format of Small Campbell’s Soup Can (Chili Beef) also allowed Warhol to experiment with a broader expanse of blank canvas, which further isolates and heightens the soup can, making it more object-like. There are at least two other examples of this format from 1962 (both of them “tomato”), which illustrates Warhol’s fascination with empty pictorial space. He would return to this repeatedly throughout his career, especially in the blank expanse of gold surrounding his Gold Marilyn Monroe of late 1962 and in the use of a blank canvas as diptych, as in Silver Liz of 1963.
At the time Warhol painted the Campbell’s Soup Cans, Campbell’s was a market leader in canned soups: 4 out of every 5 soups sold in grocery stores across America were manufactured by Campbell’s. Like Coca-Cola, the Campbell’s brand was a powerhouse. And just like many Americans, Andy Warhol’s mother served him soup for lunch every day as a child. When asked—famously—why he painted the soup cans, Warhol explained: “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” (A. Warhol, quoted in G. R. Swenson, “What is Pop Art?” Art News, November 1963, p. 26). Warhol had a personal connection with Campbell’s soup that—coincidentally—was also shared by millions of Americans. If the Campbell’s soup brand could convey the warmth of childhood and provide a sort of nostalgic wholesomeness, it must also be noted that the product was factory-produced, each can a homogenized replica of the can that preceded it. This certainly appealed to Warhol, who himself famously declared, “I want to be a machine, and I feel that whatever I do and do machine-like is what I want to do” (A. Warhol, Ibid., p. 26).
The design and packaging of the Campbell’s soup can had remained essentially unchanged since its original design around the turn of the 20th century. According to a brochure from the Warhol archive, the original red and white label was adopted in 1894, while some time after 1900 a gold medal from the Exposition Universelle Internationale was added. As Kirk Varnadoe, the legendary curator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, pointed out, “In 1912, Printer’s Ink cited the Campbell’s label as an exemplary example of effective packaging, good for display purposes, and another article in 1915 on ‘Designing the label with the Sales “Punch”’ included the Campbell’s can as an item with ‘sales force’ and an ‘excellent example’ of coordination between advertising and packaging” (K. Varnadoe, High & Low: Modern Art and Popular Culture, New York, 1993, p. 345). The design of the soup can is all the more pertinent given Warhol’s background as an illustrator.
Campbell’s “Chili Beef” was a new soup that debuted in 1961 in grocery stores across America. To promote their new soup, Campbell’s launched an ad campaign that touted the hearty flavors and “exciting” spices of “Chili Beef.” One particular advertisement from 1961 reads, “Here’s a man-pleasing, family-filling soup...chock full of the goodness of tender pink beans and lean beef. …Campbell’s Chili Beef Soup is great for all your hearty eaters.” Using words like “hearty” and “man-pleasing,” Campbell’s promoted the new “Chili Beef” as an altogether manly soup, the significance of which would not have been lost on Warhol. Another ad from that era, albeit for Campbell’s “Beef” soup, reads simply “For Men Only.”
No image is more American than the Campbell’s soup can. A constant sign of American efficiency, ingenuity and keen consumer appetite, Campbell’s soup cans were the perfect prototype for the subjects of celebrities, catastrophes, products and socialites that continued Warhol’s mining of popular visual culture. 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 Small Campbell’s Soup Can (Chili Beef) 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.