Arguably the single most iconic image of post-war art, Andy Warhol's deadpan depictions of Campbell's Soup cans signalled the dawn of a new aesthetic era when they were first exhibited at Walter Hopps' and Irving Blum's Ferus Gallery, Los Angeles, in July 1962. The thirty-two 20 by 16inch canvases, one for each flavour of soup manufactured by the food conglomerate at that time, are now collectively housed in the Museum of Modern Art, New York and rank as one of the undisputed, priceless masterpieces from the history of art. The present work, Large Campbell's Soup Can, is one from only six works made using the original colour scheme but on a larger format by the artist in 1964/65. In contrast to the Ferus Gallery group, which were stencilled and hand-painted, in Campbell's Soup Can Warhol employs his newly pioneered silkscreen process, thereby completing the equation between fine art and the mechanics of mass-production. As a result of this series, Andy Warhol and Campbell's Soup have become wedded in the American imagination, a serendipitous intersection of art and commercial branding that resulted in a landmark moment in American popular culture and a sea-change in the way Contemporary art was made.
For Andy Warhol, his legendary Campbell's Soup Can paintings of the 1960s epitomized his revolutionary approach to art. They were Warhol's wry commentary on the debate between originality and reproduction, Low Art and High Art, the role of the artist, and the modern condition of repetitive imagery. When asked in 1963 why he had chosen to paint a subject as mundane as Campbell's Soup cans, he straightforwardly answered, "I used to drink it. I used to have the same lunch everyday for 20 years. I guess, the same thing over and over again." (George Frei and Neil Printz, Eds., The Andy Warhol Catalogue Raisonné, Paintings and Sculpture 1961-1963, Volume One, New York, 2002, p. 50). The soup cans, especially the most popular Tomato Soup flavour, as seen here, were so ubiquitous as to be almost unremarkable, which made them the ideal vehicle for Warhol to document the consumerist impulses which permeated the very fabric of his age. This supermarket object thus became Warhol's most ideal subject matter. When first exhibited, the critical and public response was incendiary, firmly establishing Warhol as an enfant terrible of the art world, a position he fostered throughout the 1960s. Five of the paintings sold for $100 each following the opening of the show, but soon Irving Blum and Warhol agreed that the paintings should remain as a group. Blum arranged for the return of the purchased works and then agreed to pay Warhol $1,000 for the entire set. Some 30 years later, this seminal work was acquired by the Museum of Modern Art in New York where it stands as an icon of American art.
For their part, the Campbell Soup Company used the soup can as their company logo and corporate identity. After the paintings' debut and wide publicity in 1962-1963, the company appreciated that their most important product had been catapulted into a new realm. In October 1964, the company commissioned Warhol to make a larger 3 by 2 foot painting of a tomato soup can for Oliver G. Willits upon his retirement as Chairman of the Campbell's Board of Directors. Only the artist's third commission, the company requested that it be completed in time for an honorary dinner on November 11th. Although the Campbell Soup Company requested a painting similar to one that was illustrated on a postcard published by the Moderna Museet, Stockholm, (no. 55 in the catalogue raisonné), Warhol chose to base the composition on one of the Ferus group in which the can is in larger proportion to the background. This more central format corresponded more aesthetically with the increased size of the canvas, creating an impressive and powerful image. This magnified scale also complemented the increased graphic nature of Warhol's technique since the earlier 20 by 16 paintings of 1962.
In the Ferus group, Warhol began his early attempts to distance himself from his art by means of more mechanical reproduction that mirrored the media sources of his imagery. Warhol used a handmade stencil based on the Campbell's Soup company envelope logo which he first drew by hand on paper. He then projected the outlined image onto a blank white canvas and hand-painted the red label and black outlines. Then came the gold central medallion and the rubber-stamped fleur-de-lis along the bottom of the can. The more Warhol distanced himself from the very time-consuming process of free-style handwork, the more paintings he was able to make. As such the Campbell's Soup Can paintings were the early harbingers of the Factory processes of repetitive imagery that reached full fruition in the Large Campbell's Soup Cans of 1964/65, such as the present work, and the Coloured Campbell's Soup Cans and the Flowers of 1965.
The present Large Campbell's Soup Can is one of the six that the artist created, including the commissioned work for Mr. Willits, using the same colours as the earlier paintings, referred to by Warhol as "real colours". Another work was left unfinished and reveals the silkscreen process that was perfected by the time of the 1964 commission. Warhol used three screens: one for the red label and lettering, one for the gold medallion, fleur-de-lis and lettering, and the final for the black contours and outlines. Between the application of the second and third screens, Warhol hand-painted the lid and bottom rim with a silver metallic paint, probably using a traced stencil. Although Rainer Crone dates both series to 1965, the catalogue raisonné dates the six completed Large Campbell's Soup Can works to October-November 1964 based on the invoice for the screens, which Warhol ordered on October 29, 1964 and the consignment of the second work in the series to the Castelli Gallery in January 1965 (George Frei and Neil Printz, Eds., The Andy Warhol Catalogue Raisonné, Paintings and Sculpture 1964-1969, Volume 2B, New York, 2004, p. 189-190). Mr. Willits eventually sold his commissioned work (no.1842 in the catalogue raisonné) at Sotheby & Co., London, in 1974 and the work was later donated to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, where it remains today. Another example is still in the possession of the Campbell's Soup Company (no. 1844), while another example is in the Collection of the Worcester Art Museum, Massachusetts (no. 1847).
One of the most famous images of our time, Large Campbell's Soup Can has come to symbolise more than any other the birth of Pop art and the very era that produced it. A rare, vintage masterpiece, in Warhol's hands this mundane consumable has been enshrined on canvas to become the definitive symbol of 1960s America.
Acrylic and silkscreen ink with silver paint on canvas
Minneapolis, Locksley Shea Gallery, Andy Warhol, circa 1965
91.4 by 61cm. 36 by 24in.
Rainer Crone, Andy Warhol, New York 1970, no. 512
Rainer Crone, Andy Warhol, New York 1976, no. 861
George Frei and Neil Printz, Eds., The Andy Warhol Catalogue Raisonné, Volume 2B: Paintings and Sculptures 1964-1969, New York 2004, p. 192, no. 1845, illustrated in colour
Locksley Shea Gallery, Minneapolis (acquired directly from the artist circa 1965)
Blum Helman Gallery, New York
Thomas Segal Gallery, Boston
Barbara Jacobson, Beverly Hills (acquired directly from the above in 1985)