Nine Campbell’s Soup Cans is one of the earliest examples of Andy Warhol’s iconic series that catapulted the artist to worldwide fame and launched his career as one of the most influential artists of the twentieth century. Known as the “Mönchengladbach Type,” this is the earliest iteration of Warhol’s soup motif and defines Warhol’s mature style, creating one of the most resonate images of Pop Art. In this pivotal work, Warhol lays out nine of his soup cans, three rows of three cans, stacked atop another. Comprised of individual spray-painted elements, the strong black outlines define the silhouette of the cans with the details of the famous labels executed in red and gold. The black appears to have been applied first, providing a guide for the later detailed elements. The instantly recognizable Campbell’s logo is applied in a swathe of blazing red, punctured only by the iconic script of the maker’s name and the words ‘CONDENSED,’ which were hand cut into the stencil. Finally two passages of gleaming gold are added to denote the medallion of the labels’ design and the word ‘SOUP,’ anchoring the whole composition of the label.
Unlike his screen printed canvases, which are characterized by the clean crispness of their lines, the spray painted versions possess a much more ethereal quality; their softer outlines appearing almost as ghostly apparitions on the surface of the canvas. Here, one can see much more of the artist’s process at work as the different elements come together in a much more immediate way. The fundamental mode in which the spray is applied results in a softening of the edges of each of the individual elements, leaving very visible records of their creation. This allows us to see the artist investigating the aesthetic effect of every individual element and how it reacts with each subsequent layer as the final composition is assembled.
The defining characteristic of this type of soup can, as opposed to the later “Ferus” types is the distinct pattern of light and shadows in the upper rim of the tin. The original paintings were produced by projecting the source image onto the primed canvas, which Warhol would then dutifully trace out with a pencil. This outline was then painted in black before the individual design elements were added in progression. This method of construction was due, in part, to the fact that with this series, Warhol began to break down the image into a sum of discrete elements. Therefore the cadmium red band was laid down early, allowing space for the upper white band and the white lettering, before the yellow of the medallion was then added by painting over the top of red layer. Nine Campbell’s Soup Cans is closely related to Campbell’s Soup Box, 1962 (Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh), Warhol’s first attempt at producing a three dimensional object and what would become the prototype for the type of boxes the artist would debut in 1964 in his second exhibition at the Stable Gallery. Unlike these boxes, which would feature a single image on each side, Campbell’s Soup Box features nine separate images positioned in three rows of three. Thus Nine Campbell’s Soup Cans is one of the earliest works in which Warhol investigates seriality.
Building on the rhythm of the Ferus paintings that Warhol had exhibited in Los Angeles earlier in 1962, the artist spent much of that year and part of 1963 exploring the nature of repeated imagery. Perhaps inspired by seeing row upon row of the product displayed on the supermarket shelves, Warhol produced 200 Campbell’s Soup Cans in early 1962 along with two canvases showing one hundred soup cans (100 Cans and 100 Campbell’s Soup Cans are in the permanent collections of Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo and Museum für Moderne Kunste, Frankfurt respectively). Thus began an enduring fascination with serial composition and the aesthetic qualities of repeated imagery. This would extend to some of his famous works, including his paintings of flowers and Hollywood starts such as Liz Taylor, Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley. It is also a recognition of Warhol’s belief in the power of the image and how by multiplying them, their resonance can permeate through the generations and lasts for decades. Warhol’s explorations of seriality would become one of the most paramount and enduring tenets of his career.
Andy Warhol’s paintings of soup cans are among the fundamental works in twentieth century art history. Even great conceptualist Marcel Duchamp recognized the impact they had. ”If a man takes 50 Campbell’s soup cans and puts them on canvas,” he said “it is not the retinal image that concerns us. What interests us is the concept that he wants to put 50 Campbell’s soup cans on a canvas” (M. Duchamp, quoted in R. Crone, Andy Warhol, New York, 1970, p. 22). Taking a ubiquitous object and transforming it into high art showed Warhol’s ironic and rebellious attitude towards painting. He began to undermine the traditional genre of still life by choosing an unorthodox subject matter and an informal composition, rendering it in uncomplicated, flat areas of shading and dispassionate lines as if it were a photograph or a tracing. Warhol would soon take this reinterpretation of still life a step further he would replicate cans as if they were lined up on grocery shelves, denying the imagery any symbolic meaning or trace of the artist’s hand. Showing Warhol in an early, transitional stage, this painting marks a crucial moment in the history of art. As the curator Henry Geldzahler would recall, Warhol’s work from this time felt as revolutionary as Duchamp’s once had. “The Campbell’s Soup Can was the Nude Descending a Staircase of pop art. Here was an image that became an overnight rallying point for the sympathetic and the bane of the hostile. Warhol captured the imagination of the media and the public as had no other artist of his generation. Andy was pop and pop was Andy” (H. Geldzahler, quoted in V. Bockris, The Life and Death of Andy Warhol, London, 1998, pp. 159-160).