Campbell's Soup Can (Pepper Pot) is the iconic symbol of 1960s American Pop culture. Few pictures, either by Andy Warhol or any of his contemporaries, subvert the heroic ideals of modern abstract painting as directly and successfully. Conceptually, it continues to fuel one of the most contentious theoretical dialogues in contemporary art: what constitutes "high'' versus ``low'' culture; that is, what is the distinction between the fine art destined for museums as opposed to commercial advertising and media imagery that pervades our daily lives.
Within this context, Campbell's Soup Can (Pepper Pot) and the other Ferus-Type Soup Cans of early 1962 exhibit the beginning of Warhol's overtly "anti-handmade" style in the almost fetishistic depiction of this single isolated image. Long gone is the gestural physicality embedded in the painted brushstroke of the Abstract Expressionists venerated merely a decade earlier. Painted according to a projected image of the company logo from an envelope, these paintings are chronologically located at the threshold of Warhol's technical experimentation into the mechanical. Campbell's Soup Can (Pepper Pot) introduces the artistic objectivity that characterizes much of the art produced in the last third of the twentieth-century. As a factual advertising image, the soup can conveys a matrix of consumer relations, an endless capitalist cycle initiated by the seller, who promotes his product to a potential buyer, who in turn is expected to readily identify it through the use of a recognizable and steady image. Warhol depicts this network of exchanges by appropriating its most potent advertising symbols, and therein locating them at great distance from issues of artistic intent.
Warhol's personal involvement with tracing and methodically painting the 1962 soup can images from projected photographs eventually led to his adoption of mechanical silkscreen production in the next year. Pragmatism, a quintessential American value, is fundamental in Warhol's art theory and practice. It has been noted that he painted Campbell's soup because he had grown up consuming them for more than twenty years. Having known Andy very well, Robert Indiana stated that the reason he painted soup cans is that he liked soup (as quoted in the New York Times, December 1, 2002). Warhol himself admitted to have arrived at the use of silkscreen because it allowed for an easier and more efficient production process; the ideal means for achieving reproducibility, particularly in serial form. For Warhol, the restrictive technique of silkscreen as a medium lacking the artist's touch was of no concern.
Brilliantly objective, albeit irreverent, the individuality of Campbell's Soup Can (Pepper Pot) is subverted through the repetitive uniformity of its commercial origin as well as the import of the grouping of 32 canvases during the first exhibition of the series in 1962 at the Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles. (The present work was purchased directly from the artist in May 1962 by the prescient collectors Emily and Burton Tremaine before the Ferus exhibition took place in July). The show, which afforded Warhol instant notoriety and its unconventional display of one canvas for each variety of flavor on the company's product list was no doubt a symbolic act meant to underline the work's dependency on the outside world for content. As is often the case with avant-garde events, the show was hardly a financial success. Priced at $100 each, only a handful sold. The few works which did find buyers were later reassembled by Irving Blum (at the time co-owner of the gallery) who asked the buyers to return them in order to keep the set or 32 flavors together. He then purchased it for his own collection where it remained until he partially gifted this iconic masterpiece to the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1996.
Beginning with this group of pictures, consisting of 16 single canvases in addition to the 32-canvas set, Warhol's commercial success grew exponentially. Personifying the 'artist entrepreneur,' a new typology contingent upon the rise of the modern market, enabled Warhol to synthesize his art and persona into a recognizable product marketed through distinct capitalist efforts. Warhol's personification of the 'artist-entrepreneur' found popular support through a number of nineteenth-century popular myths on the nature of the artist. One of the most accepted and widespread of these myths is that of the artist as an eccentric genius. According to this belief, a staple of art history since antiquity, nature alone dictates artistic temperament and talent. Being naturally gifted also carried the advantage of keeping the mind from being cluttered by the unnecessary theoretical debris and poor stylistic imitation of traditionally educated artists. Relying on entrepreneurial methods of individuality, publicity, visual display, and public relations, Warhol maximized the artistic value of his oeuvre in a true American way.
The ensemble of thirty-two canvases, dictated by the number of types of soup, were exhibited on a narrow shelf adjacent to each other in a manner reminiscent of supermarket shelf displays, a strategic decision on the part of Irving Blum. Within this group of 'almost equals,' the single Pepper Pot operated as an interchangeable unit differentiated only by its sole signifier: the variety label. With the present work, isolated from its ordinary context and apart from a serial format, the image has been further typified and intensified as a tour de force within Western painting. There is surely a satirical aspect in much of this art, but it is only that, one aspect. Campbell's Soup Can (Pepper Pot) and its companion works of the series would become part of many of the most extraordinary records of 20th century art ever assembled, such as the prestigious Tremaine Collection. While no longer in the company of other seminal pictures owned by the Tremaines, including Jasper John's Three Flags (1959), and Mondrian's Victory Boogie-Woogie, (1943-44), Campbell's Soup Can (Pepper Pot) will continue to articulate America's cultural triumph in the Pop era.
Casein and pencil on canvas
Houston, Contemporary Arts Museum, Pop Goes! The Easel, 1963, cat. no. 33
Hartford, Wadsworth Atheneum, The Spirit of Modernism, February - April 1984, p. 102, illustrated in color
Mexico City, Centro Cultural Arte Contemporáneo, A.C., Leo Castelli y sus Artistas, June - October 1987, p. 40, cat. no. 169, illustrated in color and p. 50, illustrated in color (detail)
New York, Vrej Baghoomian, Andy Warhol: Genesis of an Installation, April 1988, cat. no. 15, illustrated in color
20 x 16 in. 50.8 x 40.6 cm.
Rainer Crone, Warhol, New York, 1970, no. 468
Rainer Crone, Warhol, New York, 1976, no. 817
Georg Frei and Neil Printz, eds., Andy Warhol Catalogue Raisonné: Paintings and Sculpture 1961-1963, Volume 1, New York, 2002, cat. no. 57, p. 73, illustrated in color
Stable Gallery, New York
Mr. and Mrs. Burton Tremaine, Sr., Meriden Conn. and New York (acquired from the above in 1962)
Mr. and Mrs. Burton G. Tremaine, Jr. (by descent from the above)
Estate of Burton G. Tremaine, Jr.
Christie's New York, May 14, 2003, lot 5
Acquired by the present owner from the above