Likened to the drumroll accompanying his entry onto the artistic stage, Warhol's Campbell's Soup Cans exhibition at the Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles in 1962 was pivotal in the artist's career. It featured a series of thirty-two soup-can "portraits," each identical except for the flavors on the labels. The number of paintings was determined by the number of varieties of Campbell's soup available at the time.
The display of the paintings was equally noteworthy: they stood on small white shelves running along the perimeter of the gallery in a manner which echoed the display shelves for consumer objects in a store. The exhibition was heralded as "a crucial moment of neo-avant-garde history when seriality, monochromy, and mode of display broke down the reign of the easel painting" (B. Buchloh in K. McShine, ed., Andy Warhol: A Retrospective, New York, 1989, p. 55). The paintings shocked many who deemed commercially processed soup an unworthy subject for fine art. Moreover, Warhol's seemingly mechanically reproduced images proposed an artistic strategy that was diametrically opposed to traditional modes of artistic expression.
In fact, as with the present can of Clam Chowder, Warhol's Campbell's Soup Cans paintings were handmade. He had not yet adopted the silkscreen technique which he would use with his images of Marilyn and Elvis. Nevertheless, the way in which the soup cans were painted (namely the use of stencils and flat application of paint) was calculated to replicate the impersonal, commercial quality of the depicted subject matter. Warhol used handmade stencils to create the image of the cans and the lettering, a technique he had picked up from close examination of Jasper Johns' painting of letters and numbers. The application of paint was flat. The gold medallion in the center of the can is simplified from its original form which incorporates details of allegorical figures into a flat gold disk. The image of the can itself is flat, the shading on the lid the only hint of three-dimensionality. Furthermore, the can is positioned against a white field, without any indication of ground. Like Johns' Flag or Target paintings, Warhol isolated the image, presenting a centrally-located, iconic representation in each painting. But whereas Johns' paintings, with their lush surfaces and beautifully applied color, had the appearance of high art, Warhol's painting had the flat, impersonal look of the advertising images from which they were derived.
These aspects represent deliberate choices made by the artist in creating the images. Furthermore, although the paintings create a general image of precision and consistency, details of the paintings betray the mechanical techniques employed. For instance, the gold fleur-de-lys along the bottom edge of the can, created by making impressions with a rubber stamp, are of inconsistent density. Warhol allowed the paint on the stamp to wear off over applications rather than reloading the stamp with paint between each impression, revealing the imperfection of the human machine. This too is a deliberate choice made by the artist. Although the Ferus Gallery exhibition is known to have been at the time more of a succès de scandale than a commerical success, the attention Warhol attracted, the shock he provoked, and, most importantly, the questions he raised about the artistic process by his Campbell's Soup Cans, testify to their significance. Warhol's use of seriality, of consumer items, and of Pop culture icons all utilized the strategy developed in the Campbell Soup Cans series, and became the basis for his fame.
Fig. 1 Jasper Johns, Painted Bronze, 1960, Musem Ludwig, Ludwig Donation, Cologne
Fig. 2 Henri Dauman, Supermarket Exhibition at the Bianchini Gallery. c HENRI DAUMAN 2001