Andy Warhol's Four Campbell's Soup Cans was painted in 1962, and therefore dates from the historic dawn of Pop Art. This painting of humble soup cans formed part of a revolution that would change the entire landscape of modern art. It was during the course of 1962 that Warhol, together with his famous--infamous, even--images of Campbell's soup cans, blazed a trail into the public consciousness. Later in the year, he would also discover the silkscreen process that would later create the so-called Warhol signature style; Four Campbell's Soup Cans predates that, and is therefore one of the last of his early hand-painted "projector" images.
Sometime after Four Campbell's Soup Cans was painted, Warhol was given his first one-man exhibition at the Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles, where he showed a series of pictures of soup cans which are now among the best-known works in the Museum of Modern Art, New York. In part because of that exhibition, Warhol's soup cans would alter the course of history, sending shock waves through the art world in the manner of Duchamp in 1912. As the legendary curator Henry Geldzahler would recall: "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. 159-60).
At his Ferus show, Warhol exhibited a group of pictures of soup cans, which had been created with the use of stencils in order to emphasise their seriality; they all had the same tight composition and the same measurements. By contrast, Four Campbell's Soup Cans forms a part of a small group of paintings which Warhol created by projecting photographic images onto a canvas and painstakingly following the traces with pencil and brush. In this group of only seventeen works, many of which are in major international museums, the soup cans are shown as though in the round. Several of them also bear the marks of accidental or deliberate interventions: in some, the labels are torn, the metal has been crushed, or, as is the case in the can that crests the composition in this picture, the tin has been opened.
Four Campbell's Soup Cans is one of only three pictures within this group showing multiple cans. In a vivid counterpoint to the more regular stacking of, say, 100 Campbell's Soup Cans, here they are stacked in a seemingly haphazard near-pyramid. Heightening the impression of spontaneity, one can is on its side while in the reverse another leans diagonally. It has been represented with bold and deliberately reductive foreshortening: the lid is depicted through the use of concentric, intermittent black circles while the body is a field of red, another of white, and at the bottom edge there is a hint of the gold fleur-de-lys motifs of the original design. Looking at these cans, it becomes clear that Warhol has leached out any of the tone or shading of the photograph on which the image was based and instead has presented the scene through the use of unmodulated fields of color which recall the other, more frontal, stencilled images of soup cans. The swathes of bold red of the design are made all the more visually striking by their contrast with the luminous white background, which dominates so much of the surface.
The composition in these pictures was carefully determined as is evident from the fact that he used only a few of the images from the contact sheets which survive and which reveal some of his process. The photographs, which had been taken at Warhol's request by his friend Edward Wallowitch, explored a number of variations in stacking and perspective, recalling the still life paintings of modest pots and bottles, by the Italian painter Giorgio Morandi. This is a far cry from the more common "portrait" type painting of soup cans that Warhol created: instead of being based on short-hand design illustrations and logos, in Four Campbell's Soup Cans he has created a still life tableau that has an impressive visual dynamic and even a narrative thrust. Each of the works in this group is patently unique, eschewing the factory-line aesthetic of of his later works. The subtle intervention exercised on the fabric of the cans on display is sensuous in its tactility. In Four Campbell's Soup Cans, the cans are depicted as attainable objects of desire.
Warhol's selection of the soup can as a motif had come about as a consequence of a false start in his career. Several of his earlier pictures had been based on images from comic strips; when he had a chance to show them to Leo Castelli, he was horrified to find out that the legendary gallerist had just signed another artist who was painting similar works--Roy Lichtenstein. Despondent, Warhol turned to a friend, Muriel Latow, and asked for suggestions as to what to paint. Latow asked him: "What do you like most in the whole world?" Warhol replied, "money," to which Latow countered that he should paint money before continuing, "You should paint something that everybody sees every day, that everybody recognizes... like a can of soup" (A. Warhol and M. Latow, quoted in ibid., p. 143).
This suggestion chimed with Warhol, for whom Campbell's Soup had been a staple throughout much of his life. When asked about it, he would sometimes explain that he painted the soup cans because he liked it or because he drank it every day. It may also have been an autobiographical reminder of his own humble beginnings: "Many an afternoon at lunchtime Mom would open a can of Campbell's for me, because that's all we could afford," Warhol recalled, adding, "I love it to this day" (A. Warhol, quoted in ibid., p. 144). His friend Robert Heidie ascribed Warhol's compelling connection to his subject this way: "Andy told me that, even though he had learned to draw the required bowl of fruit on the dining-room table at art school, what he really wanted to paint was that can of Campbell's tomato soup (his favorite) from his mother's pantry" (Heidie, ibid.).
In an interview in 1962, the year that Four Campbell's Soup Cans was painted, Warhol proffered yet another explanation: "I just paint things I always thought were beautiful, things you use every day and never think about. I'm working on soups, and I've been doing some paintings of money. I just do it because I like it" (A. Warhol, quoted in "The Slice-of-Cake School," Time, May 11, 1962, p. 52). For in whatever guise the explanation is packaged, in selecting this motif, Warhol elevated the backdrop of everyday consumer life through his paintings, placing those products on a new artistic pedestal.
This was a process of celebration--and denigration: Warhol was clearly creating a frontal assault on the elitism inherent in both a capitalist society and in the art world in particular, insisting that the soup can was as valid a subject for a painter as any other. This body of work was also seen as foiling the subjects of Abstract Expressionists, the physical and psychic self, which were still powerful forces in the New York art world at the time. Everyday objects such as can of soup appeared to have no place in a world where the Action Painters were declaring that they were nature and that their images were proxies for timeless truths. The immediacy and accessibility of Warhol's vision cut through such rhetoric; likewise, in works such as Four Campbell's Soup Cans, he subverted the revered brushstroke, the painterly touch that had been so central to so much modern art, by subsuming it in the projected patterns of a photograph which he so meticulously followed. In this way, he undermined the narrative of machismo that had in the previous decades been associated with the American avant-garde, and introduced a new narrative: Pop.
Four Campbell's Soup Cans
Casein and graphite on canvas
Please note that this work is signed and dated on the stretcher.
PROPERTY FROM A DISTINGUISHED EUROPEAN COLLECTION
Signed and dated 'ANDY WARHOL 62' (on the stretcher)
Andy Warhol , 20th Century, Paintings, United States of America, Post War
Providence, Museum of Art, Recent Still Life, February-April 1966, no. 71 (illustrated).
New York, Museum of Modern Art; Oswego, State University of New York; Crawfordsville, Wabash College; Lubbock, Texas Technological College; Jacksonville, Cummer Gallery of Art; San Francisco State College; East Lansing, Michigan State University, Kresge Art Center; Macon, Mercer State University and College Park, University of Maryland, Contemporary American Still Life, January 1967-January 1968.
London, Hayward Gallery, Pop Art Redefined, July-September 1969, no. 97 (illustrated).
Turin, Galleria Galatea, Andy Warhol, November-February 1972, no. 1 (illustrated in color).
POST-WAR & CONTEMPORARY ART
20 x 16 in. (51 x 41 cm.)
M. Compton, Pop Art, London, 1970, no. 105 (illustrated).
J. Coplans, Andy Warhol, London, 1970, p. 62 (illustrated).
R. Crone, Andy Warhol, Berlin, 1970, no. 470 (illustrated).
R. Morphet, ed., Warhol, exh. cat., London, Tate Gallery, 1971, fig. 38 (illustrated).
O. Hahn, Warhol, Paris, 1972, p. 40 (illustrated).
R. Crone, Das Bildnerische Werk Andy Warhols, Berlin, 1976, no. 819.
L.T. Thorpe, Andy Warhol: A Critical Evaluation of his Images and Books, Ann Arbor, 1980, fig. 2.7 (illustrated).
A. Boatto, Pop Art, Rome, 1983 (illustrated).
G. Frei and N. Printz, eds., The Andy Warhol Catalogue Raisonné of Paintings and Sculptures, 1961-1963, vol. 01, New York, 2002, pp. 108 and 114, no. 100 (illustrated in color).
Leo Castelli Gallery, New York
Mr. and Mrs. Leo Castelli, New York
Gian Enzo Sperone, Turin
Galleria Galatea, Turin
Acquired from the above by the present owner, 1971