Andy Warhol's first one-man exhibition of paintings was held at the Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles in 1962, and featured thirty-two Campbell's Soup Can paintings, all identical except for the type of soup. The exhibition was a succès de scandale rather than a commercial success, as few paintings sold. The paintings were shocking to most who saw them. Displayed on a shelf as if in a store, their number determined by the number of available types of Campbell's soups (Warhol kept a list of all of the available varieties of soups Campbell's produced and checked one off when he painted it), these seemingly mechanically reproduced images proposed an artistic strategy that was diametrically opposed to the reigning mode of artistic expression, Abstract Expressionism.
Warhol's Campbell's Soup Can paintings were in fact hand-made--he did not learn the silkscreen technique that he would use throughout the rest of his career until after the Soup Can series was completed. But the Soup Cans still look like the mechanical reproductions they imitated. Warhol utilized handmade stencils to create the image of the cans and the lettering--a technique he had picked up from close examination of Jasper Johns' paintings of letters and numbers. A rubber stamp provided the fleur-de-lys in gold at the bottom of the can. The painted areas are flatly, impersonally applied, which would become the hallmark of all future Warhols, a seeming indifference that was calculated to create just that effect, and which reflected his oft-stated desire to be a machine. Like Johns' Flag or Target paintings, which he greatly admired, Warhol isolated the image, presenting a centrally-located, iconic representation in each painting. But whereas Johns' well-crafted paintings had the look of high art, with their lush surfaces and beautifully applied color, Warhol's paintings had the flat, impersonal look of the consumer culture advertising images from which they were derived. Their presentation at Ferus emphasized their place of origin--the supermarket, one of the mega-inventions of consumerism (along with museums, one of Warhol's favorite places to go). The paintings were all the same size, and the same price. Their seriality eliminated any hierarchy, and narrative as well--the same image presented over and over prohibited any traditional sense of poetic meaning--and seemed more than anything to project the pervasiveness of Post-War consumer culture. Even Warhol's given reason for choosing the Campbell's Soup Can image showed his instinctual understanding of the new consumerism: 'I used to drink it. I used to have it for lunch everyday, for twenty years, I guess, the same thing over and over' (B. Buchloh, Andy Warhol: A Retrospective, New York 1989, p. 55).
Warhol's use of seriality, of consumer items, and of Pop culture icons, from Coke bottles and Brillo boxes to Elvis and Liz and Marilyn Monroe, utilized the strategy developed in the Campbell's Soup Can paintings, and became the basis for his worldwide fame.