Featuring the motif that would signal the arrival Pop Art and launch Andy Warhol’s stellar career, Campbell’s Soup Can (Tomato) is a truly iconic painting. By taking a ubiquitous food brand familiar to millions of ordinary Americans and transforming it into cutting edge, high art, Warhol reinvented the traditional genre of still-life and of painting itself. Composed of a stylized rendition of a single can of Campbell’s Soup, placed exactly in the middle of a blank, white linen canvas, it is a brazenly simple image that challenges conventions. Positioning the soup can so that it is seen straight on, Warhol has copied the graphics exactly—logos , color, text—to directly resemble the original printed labels of the brand. Painted in 1962, with a unique mixture of casein and metallic paint, this work predates the famous screen prints that he was to devise later that year and that would prove to be his signature medium for the duration of his career. The fastidious rendering of Campbell’s Soup Can (Tomato) demonstrates that his desire to achieve the objective precision of mechanical reproduction is already in evidence. Warhol, with his finely tuned graphic designer’s eye, knew that replicating the unadulterated red coloration and bold black lettering of the original design against a dramatically stark white background, would pack both a strong visual and conceptual punch, sending ripples through the art world that still reverberate today.
1962 was the year of Warhol’s first exhibition at the Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles, organized by its legendary director Irving Blum. Featuring thirty-two, nearly identical paintings of soup cans in each of the flavors offered by Campbell’s at the time, the show turned Warhol into an overnight sensation. These original canvases are now in the collection of Museum of Modern Art, New York on view as a seminal work of art of the post-war period. When he first displayed these works at the LA gallery show, each one was not only hung on the wall, like a normal painting, but also rested on specially erected shelves, like groceries in a shop. The first of Warhol’s works to be conceived in the structure of a series, the uniformity of the display and of the design on each canvas emphasized the uniformity of the brand of soup, as well as subverting the idea of painting as a tool of subjective expression. He was advocating the mass consumer product as a legitimate subject for art. “I don’t think art should be only for the select few,” Warhol believed, “I think it should be for the mass of the American people” (A. Warhol, quoted in MoMA Highlights, New York: The Museum of Modern Art, revised 2004, originally published 1999, p. 260).
As this work demonstrates, Warhol continued to work with the Campbell’s soup can motif after this initial show, and other examples are found in other major museum collections across Europe and America. By repeating this its famous, easily recognizable logo and graphics across multiple paintings, Warhol stressed the relevance of items of mass consumer culture to contemporary art. Stripping the brand of its content, he called attention to objects that have a broad, superficial aesthetic appeal. In fact, Warhol’s momentous decision to use the soup can as his focus stemmed from the disappointment of realizing that his own paintings based on of cartoons and comic strips bore too much of a similarity to those of Roy Lichenstein and James Rosenquist. Warhol, keen to be original but still carrying the conviction of his idea, turned to Muriel Latow, a gallery owner, for suggestions as what to paint next. “What do you like most in the whole world?” she asked him. Warhol replied, “money,” an idea that Latow liked, but added that he “should paint something that everybody sees every day, that everybody recognizes... like a can of soup” (A. Warhol and M. Latow, quoted in G. Indiana, Andy Warhol and the can that sold the world, New York, 2010, p. 82). Immediately interested in the idea, he sent an assistant to buy him a can of each of the varieties of Campbell’s soup so that he could make preparatory drawings.
It was a suggestion that caught Warhol’s imagination because of his own attachment to the soup - especially the tomato flavor. The Campbell’s brand had been a staple presence 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 V. Bockris, The Life and Death of Andy Warhol, London, 1998, p. 144). His friend Robert Heidie ascribed Warhol’s compelling connection to his subject in 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” (R. Heidie, ibid. p. 144). Its consumption had almost become a daily ritual. As he pointed out, “Because I used to drink it. I used to have the same lunch every day, for twenty years, I guess, the same thing over and over again. Someone said my life has dominated me; I liked that idea” (A. Warhol, quoted in MoMA Highlights, New York, Museum of Modern Art, revised 2004, originally published 1999, p. 260).
Warhol’s choice of Campbell’s soup underscored the artist’s instinctive understanding of post-war American consumerism, and in the early 1960s he continued to emphasize the explicitly commercial content of his work through the way in which they were displayed. His show at the Bianchini Gallery in New York, for example, also featured an installation designed to resemble supermarket displays. He continued to make variations of his soup cans, using stencils and later screen prints to explore the idea of serial imagery even further - a theme that would become a central concern within the rest of his work. In addition to its omnipresent nature in 1960s America, Campbell’s soup cans also appealed to Warhol understanding of strong graphic representation. The basic design of the label was a classic- so successful that it had remained unchanged for decades. This fact was not lost on Warhol who, trained initially as a graphic designer and illustrator, appreciated the ability to convey a message with the minimum of visual means. As David Bourdon has explained in reference to Warhol’s initial wish to paint comic strip characters, “Andy always zeroed in on the most familiar and instantly recognizable subjects. Just as he had chosen to paint Superman and Dick Tracy because they were headliners in their field, he decided to depict Coca Cola and Campbell’s Soup” (D. Bourdon, Warhol, New York, 1989, p. 90).
Later in life Warhol reflected that it the Campbell’s soup cans were among his favorite pictures. “I should have just done the Campbell’s Soups and kept on doing them ... well, because everybody only does one painting anyway” (A. Warhol, quoted in Andy Warhol, (ed.) A. Michelson et. al., 2001 p. 124). Visually striking and highly memorable, they are iconic images of burgeoning consumer culture, and a characteristically savvy reflection of contemporary society and Warhol’s wider oeuvre.
Small Campbell's Soup Can (Tomato) [Ferus Type]
Casein, metallic paint and graphite on canvas
WORKS FROM THE COLLECTION OF ILEANA SONNABEND AND THE ESTATE OF NINA CASTELLI SUNDELL
Signed and dated 'Andy Warhol 62' (on the reverse)
Andy Warhol , 1960s, Paintings, United States of America, Post War
Stockholm, Moderna Museet; Humlebæk, Louisiana Museum and Amsterdam, Stedelijk Museum, Amerikansk pop-konst, February-July 1964, p. 93, no. 94 (illustrated in color).
Kunsthaus Zurich, Andy Warhol, May-July 1978, no. 127 (illustrated).
Humlebæk, Louisiana Museum, Andy Warhol, October-November 1978, no. 51.
Vancouver Art Gallery, The Vancouver Art Gallery: Andy Warhol Images, June-October 1995, p. 76 (illustrated in color).
New York, Gagosian Gallery, Andy Warhol: Early Hand-Painted Works, September-October 2005, pp. 74-75 and 114 (illustrated in color).
Oslo, Astrup Fearnley museet for moderne kunst, Andy Warhol by Andy Warhol, September-December 2008, pp. 81 and 130, no. 3 (illustrated in color).
New York, Gagosian Gallery, Warhol from the Sonnabend Collection, January-February 2009, pp. 44-45 (illustrated in color).
Mons, Musée des Beaux-Arts, Andy Warhol: Life, Death, and Beauty, October 2013-January 2014, p. 166, no. 120 (illustrated in color).
POST-WAR & CONTEMPORARY ART
20 x 16 in. (50.8 x 40.6 cm.)
U. Kultermann, Neue Formen des Bildes, Tubingen, 1969, p. 81, no. 196 (illustrated).
G. Frei and N. Printz, eds., The Andy Warhol Catalogue Raisonné: Paintings and Sculpture 1961-1963, vol. 1, New York, 2002, pp. 72 and 75, no. 55 (illustrated in color).
The Estate of Ileana Sonnabend, acquired directly from the artist
By descent to the present owner