Recalling the decisive moment when he first recognized his future path as a Pop artist and the birth of his own unique aesthetic, Andy Warhol wrote in his memoir how it had begun in early 1962 with a visit from his friend Emile de Antonio, whom he called 'De.'
"At five 'o clock one particular afternoon," Warhol wrote, "the doorbell rang and De (Emile de Antonio) came in and sat down. I poured Scotch for us, and then I went over to where two paintings I'd done, each about six feet high and three feet wide, were propped, facing the wall. I turned them around and placed them side by side against the wall and then I backed away to take a look at them myself. One of them was a Coke bottle with Abstract Expressionist hash marks halfway up the side. The second one was just a stark, outlined Coke bottle in black and white. I didn't say a thing to De. I didn't have to-he knew what I wanted to know. 'Well, look, Andy,' he said after staring at them for a couple of minutes. 'One of these is a piece of shit, simply a little bit of everything. The other is remarkable-it's our society, it's who we are, it's absolutely beautiful and naked, and you ought to destroy the first one and show the other." That afternoon was an important one for meI still had the two styles I was working in-the more lyrical painting with gestures and drips and the hard style without the gestures. I liked to show both to people to goad them into commenting on the differences. I still wasn't sure if you could completely remove all the hand gesture from art and become noncommittal, anonymous. I knew that I definitely wanted to take away the commentary of the gesturesthe works I was most satisfied with were the cold, 'no comment' paintings" (A. Warhol, quoted in A. Warhol and P. Hackett, Popism, The Warhol Sixties, Florida, 1980, pp. 6-8).
Coca-Cola (3) is the second of the two paintings that Warhol described in this now famous recollection of the genesis of his Pop Art style. In retrospect, it seems both fitting and auspicious, that such a defining breakthrough moment in Warhol's life and work should have begun with a painting of what is literally a "bottle of pop." A large, sleekly executed, black and white and very human-scaled portrait of the famously curvaceous Coca-Cola bottle, Coca-Cola (3) is one of the first great icons of American Pop Art as well as being the painting that set Warhol on his creative path. Painted in early 1962, it is the cool aesthetic, the impersonal, near style-less, almost mechanical means of representation and the stand-alone nature of this commonplace consumer product on the blank canvas that so distinguishes this work. The very first clean-cut, hard-edged, stand-alone image in what was soon to become a Warholian pantheon of famous names and brands, this stark, simple, elegant and towering form of an instantly recognizable commodity and its famous logo is one that stands alongside that of the Campbell's Soup Can or the figures of Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe as a quintessential icon of America and the twentieth century.
Coca-Cola (3) is one of four paintings of single Coca-Cola bottles that Warhol made between late 1961 and the summer of 1962. The first of these, Coca-Cola (1) is a comparatively small painting that depicts a Coke bottle and the disc logo in the company's original trademark colors of red and white and has a strange curtain-like border running down the right-hand side of the work. The image Warhol has chosen as the basis of this work derives from an old Coca-Cola advertisement of 1947. Executed in a deliberately loose and dripped oil paint and crayon and only lightly sketched in places as if to merely suggest the image rather than render it fully or complete, this small sketchy, red and white canvas has all the visual appearance of an ad-man's draft. It is the only Coke bottle painting to be based on this distinctly retro 1940s advertisement; the other three paintings all derive from a different, undated, but seemingly more modern, black and white advert that appeared in the Pittsburg magazine Byzantine Catholic World--a periodical that it is likely to have belonged to Warhol's mother. Warhol's second Coca-Cola painting, Coca-Cola (2) (now in the Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburg) is another "sketchy" version, being a larger, six-foot high work that depicts the Coke bottle and part of its logo in a similarly "arty" brush-stroked manner and, as in the first version, again includes a vaguely sketched curtain running down its right-hand side. This is the work that Warhol presented alongside Coca-Cola (3) to De Antonio and remembers him calling it "a piece of shit, simply a little bit of everything." In his own memoirs De Antonio also described this painting as a Coke bottle "lined with the brushy strokes of Tenth Avenue failure, second generation Abstract Expressionism" advising Warhol to "burn it" (Note: Emile de Antonio, "Marx and Warhol" a variant draft quoted in Branden W. Joseph "1962,", October Spring 2010, no. 132. p. 130).
Executed on a similarly large, human-sized scale, Coca-Cola (3) is the work in which the cold, impersonal, machine-like objectivity that would come to distinguish so much of Warhol's later art can first be discerned. In this painting Warhol has removed all extraneous detail to concentrate solely on the iconic image of the famous bottle and the logo, which is cropped as it runs over the edge of the large, white, portrait-shaped canvas. Painted carefully by hand, directly onto the blank canvas, in accordance with a projected image of the advert, without first making any preliminary pencil drawing, Warhol has focused directly and only on the sign-like motif of the bottle and its celebrated logo, rendering both in a smooth, impersonal manner devoid of any visible brushstroke or sense of peinture. Originally, Warhol had also included the words "Standard" and "King Size" that appeared under the Coca-Cola logo in the advert, but later, evidently recognizing the solitary iconic power of his image, he has painted these words out using a white that has still allowed them to remain partially visible as pentimenti.
It was this isolating aspect of Coca-Cola (3) that so appealed to Gene R. Swenson who, on first seeing it not long after it was painted, immediately included it in an article he was then writing for ARTnews to be titled 'The New American Sign Painters'. In this article, one of the very first commentaries on the then emerging American Pop movement, Coca-Cola (3) was illustrated alongside paintings such as Roy Lichtenstein's Engagement Ring and James Rosenquist's I Love You with My Ford, while Swenson argued that "the shape, size and color of its presentation" characterized a newly emerging "attitude towards objects to which we seldom pay conscious attention, but which make up the preconceptions of our everyday visual experience." (Gene R. Swenson, "The New American Sign Painters,"ARTnews, Sept. 1962, p. 61).
The last of Warhol's single Coke bottle paintings, Coca-Cola (4) was painted sometime after Coca-Cola (3) in the summer of 1962 and is, to all intent and purpose, a slightly larger reworking or second version of it. Almost identical in composition, save for a cropping of the letter 'l' on the Coca-Cola logo and the absence of any pentimenti, Warhol appears to have executed this work for either the Stable Gallery or the Ferus Gallery, perhaps both. (According to Rainer Crone's catalogue raisonné, Coca-Cola (4) bears the provenance of both Stable and Ferus galleries).
Warhol's impeccable choice of subject matter in selecting the Coca-Cola bottle as the first of what was to become a prolonged series of trademark icons in his work--running from Campbell's Soup to Brillo, Kellogg's, Heinz and General Electric-should also be considered in the context of his other paintings of this early proto-pop period. Coca-Cola (3) is one of a series of predominantly black and white paintings of subjects drawn from the world of cheap newspaper advertising at this time that included illustrations for television sets, refrigerators and physical self-improvement products in the form of wigs and nose-jobs for example. In particular, in some works from this period, such as that of his repeated paintings of singular consumer products--the telephone and the typewriter--Warhol had been drawn to particularly nostalgic images, painting a noticeably old-fashioned, stand-up telephone and an illustration of an out-moded 1930s typewriter. In some respects too, Warhol, as he was to do in his choice of the Campbell's Soup Can, which recalled for him the comfort and security of his childhood lunches with his mother in Pittsburg, may have been prompted by a sense of nostalgia in his decision to paint the Coke bottle.
A classic of design, first created in 1915 by Raymond Lowey Associates, the famous pinched-waist Coke bottle was a familiar and comforting presence in daily American life having graced every bar, soda fountain and supermarket in the country for over forty years. Promoted ferociously throughout the Second World War as a "little piece of home" accompanying the G.I.s wherever they were posted, it had become a symbol of America-the-land-of-plenty all over the world. In 1956, however, the Coca-Cola company had introduced the first Coke cans to the market and many thought that the days of the glass Coke bottle might well be numbered. So, in addition to Warhol's original decision to paint a Coke bottle from a 1940s Coke advertisement, there may, as with his telephone and typewriter, have been a strong element of nostalgia implicit in his decision to paint this elegant but also perhaps disappearing classic of popular culture. In 1961 however, Coca-Cola introduced a new version of its pinched-waist bottle to the market-one that for the first time carried its new trademark from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. It was this newly patented, up-to-the-minute, bottle, complete with registered trademark, that Warhol painted in his second, third and fourth Coca Cola bottle paintings.
Like his other black and white paintings of clearly defined and distinctly singular objects, Warhol's decision to paint such a well-known and distinctive object as a Coke bottle, was a deliberate assertion of the validity of figurative subject matter as an image in painting. This was a clearly thought-out response to what was the then-prevailing tendency in American art of Abstract Expressionism, where such a concept was considered taboo. Indeed, with their zip-like borders and their concentration on an elegant division of black and white areas of the canvas, paintings such as Telephone, and Coca-Cola (2) can even, in this context, be regarded as quirky figurative responses to the large black and white canvases that artists like Franz Kline and Barnett Newman were making in the late 1950s and early 1960s. As Warhol explained, up until the creation of Coca-Cola (3), he still often worked with a drip and splash style of painting that owed much to Abstract Expressionist influence. "You can't do a painting without a drip," Warhol had even told Ivan Karp of the Castelli Gallery around this time, to which Karp had pointedly reminded Warhol of Roy Lichtenstein's recent abandoning of this style in favor of a hard edge and more mechanical-looking means of representation in his most recent cartoon paintings, saying to Warhol, "Maybe you can make a painting in modern times without a drip" (I. Karp, quoted in D. Bourdon, Warhol, New York, 1989, p. 84). Soon after showing Coca-Cola (2) and (3) to Emile De Antonio, Warhol also showed these paintings to Karp who responded similarly to de Antonio commenting, that Warhol's "blunt, straightforward works are the only ones of any consequence. The others are all an homage to Abstract Expressionism, are they not?" (I. Karp quoted in A. Warhol and P. Hackett, Popism, The Warhol Sixties, Florida, 1980, p. 9). Warhol recalled after this that together they, "talked for a long time about this new subject matter of mine," and Karp said that "he had intimations that something shocking was about to happen with it" (A. Warhol, quoted in ibid.).
In concentrating on painting single objects in such paintings as Telephone and his Coca-Cola paintings Warhol was clearly also responding to the example of Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg whose work was also playfully integrated simple everyday objects into otherwise highly brush-worked, textural and painterly surfaces. Warhol had learnt from Rauschenberg that art could come from anywhere and that anything could be used as art. From Johns he had also come to recognize that such things could stand alone. Seeing their work as representing the cutting edge of American art at this time, Warhol was eager to become close to their circle. Comparatively well-off, as a consequence of his successes in the advertising industry, Warhol had even bought a Johns drawing of a single light-bulb from Castelli and was well aware of Johns' famous painted bronze Beer Cans and his Savarin Coffee Can, which many have seen as precedents for Warhol's adoption of the Campbell's Soup motif.
In a similar vein, Rauschenberg had recently used Coca-Cola bottles in his work, appending their unadorned empty glass forms onto the heavily painted, mock-Abstract Expressionist surfaces of such "Combines" as Curfew and Coca Cola Plan of 1958. There can be little doubt therefore that in Warhol's mixture of the Coca-Cola bottle and logo and the overtly Abstract Expressionist-type brushwork of his paintings Coca Cola (1) and (2) of 1961, Warhol was following, to some extent, the lead set by Rauschenberg's "high and low" mixture of elaborate Ab-Ex style brushwork and quotidian elements drawn from daily life and real experience. What is unique about Warhol's aesthetic, however, is the quality he suddenly arrived at in the dry, matter-of-fact, no frills and no comment style of painting announced by Coca-Cola (3). This cold, sober and wholly objective approach heroifying his subject matter without recourse to any high-art showiness or extrovert, individualistic handcrafting marks not merely a radical departure from the paying of any lip service to Abstract Expressionism and so-called "fine art" practice, it actually appears to refute it and point in an entirely new direction.
Even more important than the apparent adoption of a Duchampian indifference in the cool aesthetic of Coca-Cola (3) is Warhol's insightful recognition that the "new realism" that such an art appears to have been proposing was in fact little more than a new illusionism. For Warhol, more than all of those around him, was keenly aware that it was not in fact an object he had represented in Coca Cola (3) at all, but an ad-man's drawing of that object. All of Warhol's black and white paintings of singular commodities, from the telephone to the television set had been based on advertising images, on pictures that were graphically distorted in order to represent these products looking their most desirable. Warhol's appropriation of the ready-made object was not like Duchamp's or Rauschenberg's therefore. It was not an appropriation of the object itself but an appropriation of its faked, public or celebrity image. It was this veneer, this illusion of the world of advertising that was the real subject of Warhol's work. And this is something that is made clear in Coca-Cola (3) by the partial inclusion of the company logo alongside the stylized graphic representation of the 1961 bottle. Its inclusion reveals that the image of the bottle too, albeit familiar and recognizable, is an illusion, an artifice and an advertising tool.
It was the cool objectivity of Warhol's silence-of which Coca-Cola (3) is the very first startling example in the artist's extensive and, in this respect also, often bleak, oeuvre-that led to Warhol becoming what Calvin Tomkins so memorably once described as a "speechless and rather terrifying oracle;" an artist who had "made visible what was happening in some part to us all" (C. Tomkins, "Raggedy Andy" in Andy Warhol, exh.cat., Eindhoven. 1970. p. 10).
Warhol's painting of Coca-Cola (3) coincides with a period when, for the first time, criticism of the kind of advertising techniques employed by big corporations like Coca-Cola was steadily mounting. During the Second World War the soft drink had been promoted ferociously in many countries, accompanying the American G.I.s wherever they had been posted and marketed alongside them as a symbol of Western freedom and the pleasures this afforded. In the aftermath of the war, however, the company and its logo, which suddenly seemed to be appearing everywhere, came to be seen by many as less a badge of freedom than a propagandistic banner of American Imperialism. It was as such that it was taken up repeatedly, along with the logo of the American oil company Esso (Exxon), between 1961 and 1964 by Mario Schifano in Italy where the Coca-Cola sign was often regarded as an anti-Communist and even proto-Fascist symbol. Similarly, the Coca-Cola company's former links with the Third Reich and its history as a leading sponsor of the 1936 Berlin Olympics were especially provocative in a newly divided Germany that had been split into an American-backed West and Soviet-controlled East. In Berlin, Wolf Vostell's 1961 collage Coca-Cola, now in the Museum Ludwig in Cologne, makes explicit reference to the symbolic power of the Coca-Cola logo as an icon of American capitalism in the year that the Berlin Wall was built.
Warhol recognized the power that the Coke brand had in modern society, not only in its ubiquitous nature, later developing the image of the Coke bottle into a persuasive image of mass-production in his 210 Coca-Cola Bottles and Green Coca-Cola Bottles, but also famously linking Coca-Cola with the identity and ideal of America when he later wrote: "What's great about this country is that America started the tradition where the richest consumers buy essentially the same things as the poorest. You can be watching TV and see Coca-Cola, and you know that the President drinks Coke, Liz Taylor drinks Coke, and just think, you can drink Coke, too. A Coke is a Coke and no amount of money can get you a better Coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking. All the Cokes are the same and all the Cokes are good. Liz Taylor knows it, the President knows it, the bum knows it, and you know it" (A. Warhol, The Philosophy of Andy Warhol: From A to B and Back Again, London, 1975, pp. 100-101).
In this famous statement Warhol intriguingly managed to interconnect American marketing practice and its inherent sense of democratic opportunity with an almost Communist sense of egalitarianism, fairness and uniformity, hereby strangely seeming to breach the apparently polemic opposites of Madison Avenue and Karl Marx with the simple, repeated, single, graphic image of this famous bottle of pop.
As the critic Robert Hughes once pointed out in this regard, Rainer Crone, who wrote the first Warhol catalogue raisonné, had been the first, in 1970, to claim that Warhol was the first artist in history to "create something more than traditional 'fine art' for the edification of a few." By mass-producing his images of mass production ... (he) had, (Crone claimed), entered a permanent state of "anaesthetic revolutionary practice." In this way, Hughes wrote, "the 'elitist' forms of middleclass idealism, so obstructive to art experience yet so necessary to the art market, had been short-circuited. Here, apparently, was something akin to the 'art of five kopeks' Lunacharsky had called on the Russian avant-garde to produce after 1917. Not only that: the People could immediately see and grasp what Warhol was painting. They were used to soup cans, movie stars, and Coke bottles. To make such bottles in a factory in the South and sell them in Abu Dhabi was a capitalist evil; to paint them in a factory in New York and sell them in Dusseldorf, an act of cultural criticism" (R. Hughes, "The Rise of Andy Warhol," The New York Review of Books, February 18 1982).
Like so many of the finest of Warhol's works, Coca-Cola (3) leaves the question of whether it is an act of cultural criticism or an embracing of the emptiness and banality of contemporary culture wholly open. The viewer is both encouraged and left free to make of the image whatever they want it to be. It was this openness by new but seemingly familiar and instantly recognizable means that made this work seem so revelatory and portentous to those like De Antonio and Ivan Karp when they first saw it. It is also this openness to all interpretation combined with the surprising simplicity or nakedness of its imagery that allows the work to continue to resonate. Reflecting the slick mechanized impersonality of modern culture like a mirror, Coca Cola (3) is a sensual and seductive icon of 'pop' in all its sugary sweetness and vacant banality. The first Warhol masterpiece, it speaks as ominously today as when it was first made over fifty years ago. "I feel I represent the U.S. in my art," Warhol said, "but I'm not a social critic. I just paint those things in my paintings because those are the things I know best. I'm not trying to criticize the U.S. in any way, not show up any ugliness at all. I'm just a pure artist I guess" (A.Warhol, 1966 quoted in Gretchen Berg, "Andy Warhol: My True Story" in K. Goldsmith, I'll be Your Mirror, The Selected Andy Warhol Interviews, New York, 2004, p. 88).