By Evan Leahy and Emma Ghighi
Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup motif has become a stand-in for what most people think of when they hear the term ‘modern art.’ It is at once famous yet obscure. The soup cans have become synonymous with the art world, yet some question whether they deserve to be called “art” at all. Sixty years later, Warhol’s recurring soup can motif still invites us to question our assumptions about fine art.
The Origin of Warhol’s Campbell Soup Cans
It was a $50 check that led to the popularization and controversial history of what is known today as Pop Art. Andy Warhol, an up-and-coming artist in the early 1960s, was eager for inspiration as artists like Claes Oldenburg and Roy Lichtenstein found success with their colorful cartoons. Attempting to console a discouraged Warhol, two friends went over to his house during a fall night in ‘61. One of them, a minor art dealer on the New York scene and soon-to-be historic muse, named Muriel Latow. Warhol begged both acquaintances for ideas, but Latow would not dish out her brilliant piece of advice for free. “You’ve got to find something that’s recognizable to almost everybody”, she finally said, after being handed over a check for $50. “Something you see everyday that everybody would recognize. Something like a can of Campbell’s Soup.” By the next morning, Warhol had run out to the closest supermarket and picked up every flavor of Campbell’s Soup they carried. On December 19, 1961, Warhol completed his first Soup Can painting. In the following year, he displayed all thirty two flavors of Campbell’s Soups, forever changing the face of pop art.
Warhol’s art has often been misunderstood by critics and the general public alike. It is easy to look at a can of soup on a wall and ask, “How can this possibly be art? I can go to the grocery store and see the same thing.” This critique comes with the underlying assumption that good art has to be somehow ethereal, unreachable. But why should this be so? Can art not grapple with the mundane? Should the art world ignore regular people’s daily realities? Perhaps not. These are the questions Warhol raised about artistic value sixty years ago. He worked with the emblems of his time: celebrities, consumerism, mass-production, and, of course, Campbell’s Soup. In a way, Warhol’s very ethos could be seen as a democratization of the art world, rather intentional or not. Why should so-called fine art be reserved for only a small portion of society? In fact, he is quoted as saying “I don’t think art should be only for the select few, I think it should be for the mass of the American people.”
The Soups Then and Now
Warhol began his career as a commercial artist, drawing advertisements for Glamour magazine and Israel Miller. So, the aesthetics of consumer goods had always been a large part of his artistic language. When asked about his inspiration to paint the soup cans, Warhol answered simply: “I used to drink it. I used to have the same lunch every day, for 20 years, I guess, the same thing over and over again.” Thousands of drawings and silk screens later, over the next two and a half decades, we have one of the most famous symbols in all of art history.
The original thirty-two soup cans were hand-painted and displayed in Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles, owned by Irving Blum who invited Warhol to exhibit the soups there. It was Warhol’s first one-person show and the premiere of Pop art on the West Coast. Warhol displayed the rows and columns of soup cans in a grid, evoking a grocery store aisle. Warhol was not present at the exhibition, but perhaps this was for the best, as any words of encouragement would have been hard to come by on that July evening in 1962. Abstract impressionism was in vogue, being highly regarded as a legitimate art form that captured the essence of the human condition—but Warhol was no de Kooning. Critics and patrons saw Warhol’s work as a kind of debasement of the arts, bringing something so ubiquitous and benign to the scene. But for Warhol, it was those things that he felt really mattered to us all, completely worthy of artistic depiction.
The Soup Cans were a working class staple, yet uniformly recreated as main subjects. Specifically influencing the rigid process of his painting, Warhol aspired “to be a machine”. He projected the cans onto a blank canvas while mixing oil and water based paints in order to accurately depict the tin texture repeatedly. At the Ferus Gallery show, the paintings were advertised at $100 a piece, however Blum decided by the end of the show to buy the entire set from Warhol for a total of $1,000 (paid in 10 monthly installments of $100), honoring Warhol’s wish to keep them in a complete set. As the controversy around his art boiled over in the following months, the paintings grew in popularity, becoming worth $1,500 less than just two years later.
But today, as the set of thirty two Campbell’s Soup Cans approach their 60th Anniversary, that value misses the mark by much more than a mile. After 34 years of mixed emotions since the first presentation in 1962, Blum ultimately sold the Soup Can set to New York’s Museum of Modern Art for $15 million, a price that would undoubtedly be dwarfed by what they would fetch today if auctioned. Still, this explosive rise in value is only one instance of the Warhol market’s incredible performance. Warhol’s earliest sales typically fell somewhere between the $100 to $1,500 range, and he even gave away many prints for free. Now, you can expect most Warhol prints to sell for $10,000 at the least, with the vast majority of his prints selling for over $50,000 a pop. Even so, these are small potatoes considering that many of Warhol’s unique works, once largely disregarded, have sold for dozens of millions of dollars, with his highest-selling work boasting an impressive $105.4 million in 2013 (Silver Car Crash, Double Disaster from 1963.
Despite initial hostile reception, Warhol had achieved something incredibly rare, a truly unique and paradigm-shifting work. While Warhol wasn’t among the earliest pop art artists, he is undoubtedly the most widely recognized and responsible for its popularization. In many ways, this is due to his Campbell’s soups, as they were instrumental in exposing Pop Art to the masses. Almost every adult and child in America has at least once witnessed Warhol’s Campbell’s soup cans. What was once so unbelievably controversial in 1962 has long since been firmly embedded into the canon of western art history.
The Soups Then and Now
Warhol continued to produce myriad variations on the theme over the next two decades. He created a six-by-eight-foot wall of two-hundred soup cans in 1963. In 1964, he released a plywood Campbell’s tomato juice box, and printed Campbell’s soup cans onto paper shopping bags. In 1966 he brought pop art to the world of fashion with “The Souper Dress,” a paper frock emblazoned with a grocery display of Campbell’s soup. While the original thirty-two soup cans were hand-painted (aside from the fleur-de-lis, which Warhol stamped on factory-style), Warhol used his characteristic screen-printing method to create the Campbell’s Soup I and Campbell’s Soup II (picture above, alongside Warhol’s Rolls Royce Silver Shadow) series in 1968 and 1969, respectively. Revolver Gallery is proud to own complete sets of both series, plus additional individual prints from each. These silkscreens show an essential progression for Warhol away from traditional artistic craftsmanship and toward the more mechanized manufacturing of art for which he is famous. Each print was made with absolute precision in order to match their subject matter’s factory-made conformity. Just two years before his death in 1985, as a part of the Black and White Paintings series, Warhol returned to his roots with a more “traditional” painting of a Campbell’s Tomato Soup Can, proudly owned by Revolver Gallery.
Also owned by Revolver are a Campbell’s plywood box and two Campbell’s shopping bags, one of which previously belonged to Eleanor Ward, owner of Stable Gallery, one of Warhol’s earliest gallery affiliations and reputation-building venues in New York City. It was at Stable Gallery in November 1962 where Warhol held his largest solo show yet, exhibiting his Marilyn Diptych, Campbell’s Soups, Coke Bottles, and Dollar Bills, among other works. Unlike Warhol’s earlier solo shows that year, (the one at Ferus Gallery, and another at The Loft in New York), Warhol’s Stable exhibition garnered significantly more praise from critics and visitors, giving his name a bit more prestige.
Warhol’s soup can motif has spurred countless iterations and imitations. From t-shirts to tennis shoes to product labeling and almost everywhere in between, we can see the remnants of Warhol’s lasting legacy. Notably, in 1981, graffiti artist Fab Five Freddy paid homage to Warhol by covering a New York subway car with Campbell’s soup cans, among them “Pop Soup,” “Futurist Soup,” as well as the classic “Tomato Soup.” Far more recently, self-proclaimed “decentralized Pop artist” WARHODL relies on the soup can motif heavily, using Warhol’s lasting aesthetics to push the limits of conceptual and digital art, creating NFTs and physical prints based on a combination of Warhol’s soup cans and various cryptocurrencies. After all, throughout his career, Warhol successfully expanded ideas of what art can be, and still today, many artists are quite literally following in his footsteps, re-appropriating Warhol’s classic works, which we’re sure he would have loved.
Despite Campbell’s instantly recognizable packaging, significantly amplified by Warhol, their executive board recently decided to rebrand for the first time in fifty years. It is only a slight change, but we don’t see it being hung up in the MoMA anytime soon. Notably, in conjunction with the announcement, Campbell’s commissioned artist Sophia Chang to design a series of NFTs to showcase the new-look cans. Warhol was enthralled by the advent of digital art and even created a digital version of Campbell’s soup after being introduced to computers by Steve Jobs himself. Had he been alive today, Warhol would undoubtedly be at the forefront of this new hyper-commercialized art movement.
Warhol’s fascination with consumer goods was criticized for championing American capitalism and consumerism. He once said that what was great about America was that everyone drank Coke and that it was the same wherever you went. Indeed, Warhol was enthralled by the mass production of goods, and his “business art” is simultaneously his most criticized venture and his most applauded one. Whether you love him or hate him, Warhol had his finger on the pulse of American culture. Even today, what could be more American than the allure of celebrity culture and the convenience of mass-produced consumer goods? The Campbell’s Soup motif is a perfect example of the radical reframing of the conversation. With his Campbell’s Soup cans, Warhol turned the mirror toward us, showing us who we really are, and changed the course of art history forever.