When Andy Warhol first exhibited his Campbell's Soup Can paintings in 1962, he sparked an enormous controversy. No artist before him had even entertained the idea of painting a "portrait" of a soup can making it the sole subject of a work of art. But "Andy always zeroed in on the most familiar and instantly recognizable subjects. Just as he had chosen to paint Superman and Dick Tracy because they were headliners in their field, he decided to depict Coca Cola and Campbell's Soup, the two leading products in their markets" (D. Bourdon, Warhol, New York 1989, p. 90). These images quickly became responsible for the artist's unprecedented ascent into international stardom and today, the Campbell's Soup Can, more than any other image, is identified with Warhol, and indeed has become a symbol of the Pop Art movement of the sixties.
1962, the year Big Torn Campbell's Soup Can (Pepper Pot) was painted, was a pivotal one for the artist. He had his first two one-man shows at Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles (where he exhibited 32 Campbell's Soup Can paintings, all identical except for the type of soup, now in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York) and in New York, at the Stable Gallery. It was also the year that Pop Art was officially put on the map, with events like the debate-filled "Symposium on Pop Art", at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the first museum show of Pop Art at the Pasadena Art Museum, curated by Walter Hopps.
As is typical within Warhol's oeuvre, the soup can image was painted in several series and in varied sizes and format. However, unlike the nearly identical images of most of his Campbell's Soup can paintings, where the cans are portrayed as sharp graphic commercial images, Warhol painted in 1962 a small series of tins that had been violated or deformed, "the most eloquent and tragic soup cans being those with torn labels, among the most impressive in all his works" (D. Bourdon, Warhol, New York 1989, p. 92).
According to Rainer Crone's 1970 catalogue on the artist, Warhol only created a total of four Big Torn Campbell's Soup Cans, strikingly different from one another. The label of Big Torn Campbell's Soup Can (Black Bean) (Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Düsseldorf) has a large vertical tear right down the center, but is otherwise fairly intact; in Big Torn Campbell's Soup Can (Vegetable Beef) (Kunsthaus Zurich), the top half of the label is almost completely ripped off. Big Torn Campbell's Soup Can (Pepper Pot) has the most dramatic transformation: the entire label is slipping off the can, and long vertical scratch marks have left little of the label's text intact. As with other soup cans, Warhol faithfully copied the graphics, color scheme, and proportions of the original, with the exception of the gold medallion, which he simplified into a flat, yellow disk. But with the Big Torn Campbell's Soup Cans, something very particular happens as well: the large size of the canvas (six by four and a half feet), the action implied by the shredded labels, and the textured appearance of the blackened, corroded metal underneath, all relate to Abstract Expressionism. The patchy areas are even evocative of Barnett Newman's surfaces. In addition, Warhol's use of a destroyed object, unlike his usually bright and placid images of the other soup cans, reveals an agression and violence which foreshadow darker themes like the car crashes and race riots.
1962 was also notable because it was a time of experimentation for Warhol, with developments happening very quickly. In the same year, the artist produced hand-painted, unique compositions, repeated images made with rubber stamps and stencils, and began painting with a silkscreen. The Big Torn Campbell's Soup Cans are among the last canvases Warhol painted by hand before turning to the silkscreen at the end of 1962. The cans were traced from a black and white photograph using an opaque projector, and then hand-painted in a very precise way. Big Torn Campbell's Soup Can (Pepper Pot) also contains something of a mystery with regards to Warhol's technique: the method the artist used to create the modulated surface of the corroded metal. Although never confirmed, it is thought that by "rubbing grease from his fingers into sections of the canvas, he may have created a kind of resist over which he then brushed india ink" (ed. K. McShine, Andy Warhol: A Retrospective, New York 1989, p. 68).