Later this week, some of Andy Warhol’s most iconic pieces of art go on show at MoMA in New York, in a show of work created between the early fifties and late sixties. The new exhibition includes one of his most celebrated artworks, the Campbell’s Soup Cans.
The opening night will undoubtedly be a glitzy affair – a far cry from when Warhol debuted the work in 1962. Though the soup cans caused a mild sensation in Los Angeles with the more daring members of the youthful art and film community intrigued by their novelty, most people treated them with indifference or outright disdain.
A local art dealer even parodied the show by displaying a stack of soup cans, advertising the fact that you could “get them cheaper” in his gallery, nearby. Meanwhile, Warhol’s gallerist, Irving Blum, had sold five of the paintings before realizing that the group functioned best as a single work of art. He then bought back the works already purchased – including one from Dennis Hopper – and offered to buy the entire set from Warhol in installments for the modest sum of $3,000.
Reflecting on his career, Warhol claimed that the Campbell’s Soup Can was probably his favourite work. “I should have just done the Campbell’s Soups and kept on doing them,” he said. “Everybody only does one painting anyway.” Certainly, the soup can is the signature image of his career and a key transitional work from his hand-painted to photo-transferred paintings, created during the year that Pop Art emerged as a major new artistic movement.
In the spring of 1962, Warhol had been working on his new renditions of ads and comic strips when he saw Roy Lichtenstein’s comic-strip paintings at the gallery run by Leo Castelli. Soliciting suggestions for subjects to paint, he asked a friend, who suggested he choose something that everybody recognised – like Campbell’s Soup, for example. In a flash of inspiration Warhol bought cans from the store and began to trace projections onto the canvas, tightly painting within the outlines to resemble the appearance of the original offset lithograph labels.
Instead of the dripping paint in his previous ads and comics, here Warhol sought the precision of mechanical reproduction. At the time he received a studio visit from Irving Blum of the Ferus Gallery, Los Angeles, who was expecting to see comic-strip paintings but was surprised by the new soup cans, and immediately offered Warhol a show that summer. Expanding his subject, he decided to paint one of each of the thirty-two varieties of Campbell’s soups. Blum exhibited the cans on shelves running the entire length of his gallery.
With his Campbell’s Soup Cans installation at Ferus, Warhol realised the possibility of creating works in series, and the visual effect of serial imagery. He continued making variations on his Soup Cans, stenciling multiple cans within a single canvas and so amplifying the effect of products stacked in a grocery store, an idea he would later develop in his box sculptures.
He also realised that the serial repetition of an image drained it of its meaning, an interesting phenomenon most poignantly presented in his Disasters series, in which the constant exposure to graphic displays of violence numbs the senses, something that would come to resonate more and more beyond his lifetime as technology progressed.