American art in the early 1960s, with Abstract Expressionism enjoying post-war popularity, was not exactly the sort of arena where one would expect to find 32 canvas paintings of soup cans and acknowledge them as fine art. This was the problem for Andy Warhol, when in 1962 he presented Campbell’s Soup Cans at Irving Blum’s Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles. Described as ‘either a soft-headed fool or a hard-headed charlatan’ by the LA Times and mocked by a nearby art dealer who promptly bought a stack of soup cans and placed them in his gallery – advertising them at 2 for 33 cents, reception was – at best – divisive. But it wouldn’t take long for the tables to turn and for Warhol to have the unequivocal last laugh. Delve into the details of the iconic work below.
This controversial first show of Warhol’s, along with its controversial series of cans, would go on to make him a household name and shoot him to the top of the Pop Art scene, even before the year was over. Having first advertised single canvases for 100 dollars a pop, individual Soup Cans were selling for $1500 by 1964 – not even two years later. And the series may not have even eventuated in success were it not for another deal. Irving Blum’s initial $100 price tag resulted in five sales, but the dealer soon realized the hand-stamped canvases were more remarkable as a collective. He consequently bought each individual Soup Can back from each buyer, and bought the lot from Warhol for $1000. He finally sold Campbell’s Soup Cans to New York’s Museum of Modern Art for approximately 15 million dollars, 34 years after he stacked them on some shelves in LA, with no idea of what was to come.
High and Low
The core of Pop Art is molded from the idea of taking the mundane and mass-produced and turning it into art – or, rather, acknowledging it as art in itself – presenting its mundanity as worthy enough of attention. A genuine fan of Campbell’s soup – having eaten them “every day, for 20 years, I guess, the same thing over and over again,” Warhol didn’t seek to outright satirize consumerism itself so much as Pop Art stepped onto the scene to challenge the world of fine art in general. Campbell’s Soup Cans marked the beginning of a movement that allowed people to access and recognize art, and have a bit of fun while they were at it.
Ready, Set, Consume!
The consumerist boom of the 1960s and the rise of the American nuclear family saw consumerist culture become the norm. Not only did Warhol represent objects of consumerism in his art, his art also became an object of consumerism itself: Campbell’s released special edition cans signed by the artist – at 3 for $18, a huge increase from their original 10-cents-a-can price tag. Additionally, the company brought out a limited edition paper dress in 1966, for just $1 – the ‘Souper Dress,’ now undoubtedly worth thousands. The fusion of Pop and fashion was by this point well established, and Campbell’s wisely chose to run with it.
Despite the apparent uniformity of the cans Warhol depicted and the broader world they represent, the series encapsulates uniqueness in more ways than one. Firstly, Warhol’s decision to deal with sameness – mass culture and production, was itself an ironically singular and unexpected move, gaining him fame, wealth, and as mentioned, an eventual icon status. The art itself also contains individual intricacies that are at first difficult to notice. Each of the 32 cans, for example, appear identical, but are in fact decorated with different flavors – the actual 32 that were sold by Campbell’s in 1962, from Chicken Noodle to Green Pea, Onion to Chowder.
Warhol once said, “All things are beautiful, but not everyone knows how to recognize them.” It may have taken some time for minds to change and eyes to open, but Warhol’s humble cans of soup certainly came to reflect this.
Visit the series at MOMA if ever you’re in New York, and in the meantime… is anyone else hungry?