Unique in composition, rare in scale and rich in historical significance, Andy Warhol’s Big Campbell’s Soup Can with Can Opener (Vegetable) is an early hand-painted work from the series that changed the face of twentieth-century art. It is the only example of the artist’s iconic Campbell’s Soup can paintings to feature a can opener, and is the first of eleven works that represent his largest single depictions of the motif. Seven of those eleven are held in museum collections, including the Kunsthaus Zurich; the Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Dusseldorf; The Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh; the Daros Collection, Zurich; and the Menil Collection, Houston. Tantalizingly breaking the can’s metal seal, the present work marks the start of a narrative sequence unrivalled within Warhol’s oeuvre. Where his earlier soup cans had stood as static symbols of American culture, this particular group—the so-called “still lifes”—transforms the motif into a meditation on temporality. As the series unfolds, the can’s lid is wrenched fully open, its label is peeled off and, finally, it is crushed and flattened—a reminder that even the most timeless objects are subject to decay. The ubiquitous tin thus becomes Warhol’s first memento mori, setting the stage for Marilyn, Elvis, Death and Disaster and the various fleeting icons that would enter his pantheon. Executed during the early months of 1962—predating the artist’s silkscreens—the present work was one of the first to be captured in Warhol’s studio, shots he chose to be photographed next to it for an article published in Time magazine in May that year. Bought at that time by the celebrated collectors Emily and Burton Tremaine, it became the first of Warhol’s pictures to be shown in a museum when it was exhibited at the Wadsworth Atheneum two months later. It was subsequently purchased by Warner Brothers executive Ted Ashley, and in 1987 it became the first Post-War American artwork to enter the prestigious collection of Barney A. Ebsworth, where it remained for the next twenty-three years. Hijacking the age-old genre of nature morte, the work offers a powerful commentary on consumerism—simultaneously deadpan and dark—that sets the tone for the rest of Warhol’s practice.
The Time magazine article—entitled “The Slice-of-Cake School”—was something of a turning point for Warhol. The artist featured alongside three other perceived protagonists of PopRoy Lichtenstein, James Rosenquist and Wayne Thiebaud—and was pictured outside his Lexington Avenue studio, eating a can of Campbell’s Scotch Broth and standing next to Big Campbell’s Soup Can with Can Opener (Vegetable) The Tremaines, who had met Warhol the previous year, purchased the work shortly afterwards on their second visit to his studio. They were already influential collectors, having acquired a large range of works including Hans Arp, Georges Braque, Alexander Calder, Stuart Davis, Robert Delaunay, Jasper Johns, Paul Klee, Franz Kline, Henri Matisse, Piet Mondrian—his celebrated Victory Boogie-Woogie of 1942-44—Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko among many others. Emily Tremaine had been greatly influenced by her cousin A. Everett “Chick Austin,” the legendary Director of the Wadsworth Atheneum from 1927-1945. Austin was a first American museum director to acquire works from Mondrian and Calder and hosted the first Picasso exhibition in the United States. Their involvement with Pop marked a new beginning for them, and resulted in the acquisition of masterpieces by Roy Lichtenstein, Claes Oldenburg, Tom Wesselmann, and a total of fifteen works by Warhol himself. The Tremaines were generous donors to museums, and in the late 1970s—for the very first time—they decided to sell a few works, including Jasper Johns’ Three Flags to the Whitney Museum of American Art, Warhol’s Marilyn Diptych to the Tate, and the present work. The sale of these paintings allowed the Tremaines to broaden their support for the many charitable causes with which they were involved.
Campbell’s soup was Warhol’s first true subject, pursued to the point of obsession between 1961 and 1962. These works effectively launched his career, and would later be described by the artist as his favourite paintings. Campbell’s Soup had been a staple of American grocery stores since the nineteenth century, and a pervasive feature of Warhol’s own childhood. The can’s appearance had remained unchanged for over fifty years, and its price for over forty. Now, elevated to the realm of high art, the most banal domestic commodity would never be seen in the same way again. The techniques that Warhol explored throughout the series demonstrate his extraordinary draughtsmanship—honed during his previous career as an illustrator—whilst simultaneously paving the way for the silkscreen works that would come to dominate his practice. His earliest “portrait” soup cans were based on printed illustrations that were projected, traced and meticulously painted onto canvas. The “serial” soup cans that followed were Warhol’s first repetitive structures, created using a stencil derived from a photograph by Edward Wallowitch. The present work and its “still life” companions, which drew upon sources from the same photographer, were distinguished from their predecessors by their focus on the object’s transitory condition. Their message was disarmingly prophetic: commercialism in America was about to explode onto a much larger scale and, as Kirk Varnedoe points out, new marketing strategies would begin to encroach upon the soup’s immutable branding. The unadulterated packaging of Warhol’s youth would increasingly become corrupted by taglines and slogans; by the 1980s, the artist would be forced to confront the product as dried powder in a box. For Warhol, who lovingly collected every flavor of tinned Campbell’s Soup, the present work may be understood as a poignant farewell. At the moment at which the lid is lifted, the myth of endurance is shattered. The product transforms from a pristine icon to a perishable substance, subject to the inevitable ravages of time.
WARHOL’S SOUP CANS: INCEPTION AND IMPACT
As with many of Warhol’s best-known subjects, the idea for the Campbell’s Soup cans originally came from a friend. In 1961 Leo Castelli’s assistant Ivan Karp had refused the artist’s request for representation, claiming that his recent comic-strip works were too similar to those of his contemporary Roy Lichtenstein. Seeking new inspiration, Warhol turned to Muriel Latow: a designer and writer in his circle. “You should paint something that everybody sees every day, that everybody recognizes,” she advised, “... like a can of soup” (M. Latow, quoted in V. Bockris, The Life and Death of Andy Warhol, London 1998, p. 143). The suggestion had an immediate impact, and Warhol sent his mother out to buy every flavour of Campbell’s Soup she could find. His first presentation of the subject was Campbell’s Soup Can (Tomato Rice) (The Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh), in late 1961—a highly painterly rendition based on a photographic source image. As the series developed, so too did Warhol’s reputation. His multiple iterations of the motif eventually caught the attention of West Coast dealer Irving Blum, who came to visit Warhol’s studio in mid-1962. Blum offered Warhol an exhibition at the Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles that summer, and the resulting show—his solo debut—catapulted him to international acclaim. For the exhibition, Warhol presented thirty-two individual small soup can paintings showing each of the Campbell’s flavours—a landmark group of works later acquired by the Museum of Modern Art, New York. The paintings were laid out in uniform sequence on shelves like products in a supermarket, thereby cementing their commercial critique. It was a statement that took the art world by storm: “Warhol captured the imagination of the media and the public, as had no other artist of his generation,” recalled Henry Geldzahler. From that moment on, “Andy was pop and pop was Andy” (H. Geldzahler, quoted in V. Bockris, The Life and Death of Andy Warhol, London 1998, pp. 159-60).
Though Warhol would return to the Campbell’s Soup can intermittently throughout his career—briefly in 1965, and later as part of his Retrospectives and Reversals in the 1970s—it was during the initial period of 1961-1962 that the subject made its boldest conceptual claims. Geldzahler had described the soup cans as “the Nude Descending a Staircase of Pop Art,” referencing the 1912 painting by Marcel Duchamp. Duchamp, for his part, observed that “If you take a Campbell’s Soup can and repeat it fifty times, you are not interested in the retinal image. What interests you is the concept that want to put fifty Campbell’s soup cans on a canvas” (M. Duchamp, quoted in D. Bourdon, Warhol, New York 1995, p. 88). In his typically evasive manner, Warhol declared that repeating the soup can—whether over the course of a series, or within a single canvas—reflected its status as an everyday comestible. “I used to have the same lunch every day for twenty years,” he explained, referring to his daily repast of Campbell’s Soup and a sandwich (A. Warhol, quoted in Art News, November 1963). To the public, however, these works harboured a much darker suggestion: that art and mass-produced goods were now interchangeable, both as subjects and as objects. Though Warhol’s subsequent silkscreens would amplify this notion, his early non-mechanical procedures are almost more disturbing in their veiled pretences. All traces of the artist’s hand are largely concealed; only up close do the tell-tale pencil marks and painterly inconsistencies reveal themselves. By recreating a commercial image by hand, Warhol forces the viewer to contemplate the nature of the object before them: is it a picture of a commodity? Is it a commodity itself? Sometime later, lamenting the company’s decision to discontinue his favourite “Mock Turtle” soup flavour, Warhol would make the dialogue explicit: “Soups are like paintings, don’t you think?,” he asked. “Imagine some smart collector buying up Mock Turtle when it was available and cheap and now selling it for hundreds of dollars a can!” (A. Warhol, quoted in D. Bourdon, “Warhol Interviews Bourdon,” 1962-1963, reproduced in K. Goldsmith, ed., I’ll Be Your Mirror: The Selected Andy Warhol Interviews, 1962-1987, New York 2004, p. 12).
THE “STILL LIFE” SOUP CANS: FAREWELL TO THE PAST
If Warhol’s previous soup cans had already begun to shed light on the darker side of consumerist society, this commentary would be taken to a new level in the “still life” series. The repetitive sequences of the “portrait” and “serial” types are here replaced by largely singular images that, when read together, form a narrative unlike any other in Warhol’s oeuvre. Very few of his works tell clear stories; yet here, the demise of the soup can is laid out in unmistakable chapters. From opening its lid, to stripping its branding, and finally flattening its cylindrical form, these works inaugurate a concept that would come to define Warhol’s practice. They declare that whilst mass reproduction might lend its subjects the illusion of constancy, it ultimately belies their mortality. The notion that even the most prevalent icons could function as memento mori would underpin his depictions of stars such as Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe: figures whose timeless images were held in tension with their ill-fated existence. It would surface again in his series of flowers—whose transient petals were artificially held in bloom through reprinting—and would come to a head in his celebrated Death and Disaster paintings. Based on photographs of fatal accidents reported in the media, these works questioned the extent to which mass dissemination of images served to numb the tragedy of their content. In the “still life” soup cans, Warhol introduced the idea that repeating an image does not fundamentally change the shelf-life of its subject: even something as commonplace as Campbell’s Soup cannot last forever. Arthur C. Danto describes how theses cans underwent a kind of “martyrdom:” ‘The formats he discovered for showing the canvas feel almost like formats for religious painting,” he explains;”—choruses, assemblies, iconostases, where the cans were understood as vessels for our daily soup” (A. C. Danto, Andy Warhol, New Haven 2009, p. 37). Still riddled with fleeting traces of the artist’s hand, the present work contemplates the impermanence of all that was once held sacred.
Despite their various nods to visual history—from Renaissance devotional panels to nature morte and the “erotomechanics” of Francis Picabia—the still-life soup cans ultimately overwrite all artistic precedents. “Warhol’s red-and-white labelled pictures signalled a cold-blooded rebellion against the centuries-long tradition of painterly still lifes,” writes David Bourdon. ‘It was as if the artist had declared that packaged foods with recognizable brand names constituted contemporary reality, abruptly leading him to clear the table of outmoded visual feasts. His paintings implied that nobody should go on mimicking Caravaggio’s sensual baskets of ripened fruits, Chardin’s glowing copper vessels or mounds of plush peaches, or Cézanne’s dynamic arrangements of energy-rich apples. It was also goodbye to all those extravagant banquets of seventeenth-century Dutch art and even the intellectual pleasures of Cubist tabletops. The joy of food was now exemplified by a humdrum can of condensed soup starkly isolated against a refrigerator-white ground. High-minded admirers of belle peinture felt a chill as they gazed at or thought about Warhol’s soup-can paintings (D. Bourdon, Warhol, New York 1995, p. 88). Artists such as Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg had already incorporated quotidian references into their work—from Rauschenberg’s Bed (1955) to Johns’ Painted Bronze (1960)—yet Warhol’s soup cans took their investigations to a new level. Written into their very fabric is a fundamental re-evaluation of art-making: namely, that if we are going to paint the world around us, we need to be aware that it is already a world mediated by images.
“Like a great many other key pieces of modern art,” writes Kirk Varnedoe, the Campbell’s Soup can “has a polyvalence that is completely at one with its drop-dead simplicity” (K. Varnedoe, “Campbell’s Soup Cans, 1962,” in Andy Warhol Retrospective, exh. cat., Tate Modern, London, 2002, p. 45). For all the apparent complexity of the soup can paintings, Warhol was characteristically equivocal about their meaning, maintaining that they were nothing more than visions of life’s simplest pleasure. In the spring of 1962, a student named Suzy Stanton wrote a paper on Warhol for Lawrence Alloway’s class at Bennington College in Vermont. As part of her critique, she imagined a fictional scenario in which the artist invited a studio visitor to share a can of soup with him. “You know, when I was little, my mother always used to feed us this kind of soup,” he tells his guest. “But now she’s gone, and sometimes when I have soup I remember her and I feel like she’s right here with me again” (S. Stanton, “On Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Can,” 20 May 1962, reproduced in D. Bourdon, Warhol, New York 1995, p. 99). Though his mother was still very much alive, Warhol was entranced by the story, and had the paper reproduced and distributed at the opening for his exhibition at the Stable Gallery that November. Perhaps, ultimately, his Campbell’s Soup cans may be understood as expressions of nostalgia: eulogies for a time when the realms of soup and artifice were blissfully unconnected. In Big Campbell’s Soup Can with Can Opener (Vegetable), Warhol offers a warning to the age that brought them together—a cautionary tale that begins with lifting the lid.