Art History  •  Artworks under the lens

Campbell’s Soup Cans: The Pinnacle of Pop Art by Andy Warhol

Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Cans is one of the most renowned examples of his pioneering Pop Art style, transforming an everyday object into an iconic symbol. In this article, Singulart investigates Warhol’s transition from commercial artist to Pop Art star and takes a closer look at his famous work Campbell’s Soup Cans.  

Who was Andy Warhol? 

Andy Warhol (1928-1987) was a pioneer of Pop Art in America in the 1960’s. Born and raised in Pittsburgh, he was the son of two working class emigrants from Slovakia. He studied commercial art at Carnegie Mellon University where he was art director for the student art magazine which printed what are thought to be his earliest published works. After graduating in 1949, he moved to New York and began a career as a successful commercial illustrator, working for clients such as Glamour magazine and the shoe designer Israel Miller. It was during this time that Warhol developed many of the techniques that he would later use in his art. He learnt silk screen printing from Max Arthur Cohn at his Graphic Arts studio and developed his “blotted line” technique of applying ink to paper and blotting it while working in the shoe industry. Most notably, his use of tracing paper allowed him to incorporate repetition into his designs, a technique which he would later elaborate in many of his most famous works. 

Andy Warhol, Campbell's Soup Cans, 1962

He began exhibiting his work in the 1950’s but it wasn’t until the 1960’s that his rise to fame really took off. He began taking inspiration for his subject matters from everyday life and everyday objects, consequently blurring the boundaries between low and high art. He had his first solo New York exhibition at Eleanor Ward’s Stable Gallery in November 1962, which included works such as his Marilyn Diptych and 100 Coke Bottles. In 1964, Warhol participated in an exhibition titled: The American Supermarket. Along with six other pop artists, Warhol recreated the interior of a typical American supermarket. This exhibition was emblematic of his work and also one of the first events to introduce the general public to Pop Art and the questions it was raising about what constitutes art. During this time he founded his studio that came to be known as The Factory, an iconic space in New York history, where artists, musicians, celebrities, writers and more came together to create. Many of the people living and working at The Factory collaborated on Warhol’s work and assisted in his massive production, an approach which proved relatively controversial. 

On June 3rd, 1968, Valerie Solanas, a radical feminist and resident of Warhol’s studio shot Warhol and the art critic Mario Amayo at The Factory. Warhol was severely injured but survived the shooting, with Solanas claiming she shot him because she felt Warhol had too much control over her life and later being diagnosed with schizophrenia. 

Andy Warhol, Campbell's Soup Cans, 1962
Valerie Solanas

After the frenzy of the 1960’s, the 1970’s were a much calmer decade for Warhol, who adopted a more entrepreneurial approach to art, for which he was widely criticised.  Warhol defended himself by stating in his 1975 book “The Philosophy of Andy Warhol”: “Making money is art and working is art and good business is the best art.”

The 1980’s saw a second-coming to Warhol’s artistic career, largely thanks to his friendship and collaboration with many of the up and coming younger artist who were taking over the New York Art scene, such as Jean-Michel Basquiat, Julian Schnaber and David Salle. 

During his lifetime, Warhol was not only a prolific artist, but also the founder of Interview Magazine, the New York Academy of Art, a filmmaker and producer for The Velvet Underground. He died at the age of 58 after gallbladder surgery. 

What’s the story behind Campbell’s Soup Cans? 

One of the first exhibitions to launch Warhol’s rise to fame in the art world was held in July 1962 at the Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles. The show presented 32 canvases measuring 51x41cm, each one depicting a different flavour of Campbell’s Soup, lined up in a single row on a ledge, wrapping around the gallery. Campbell’s Soup Cans were some of Warhol’s first works based on common consumer goods and introduced many of the themes and techniques that would continue in his works. These 32 canvases give the illusion of being mass-produced, like printed advertisements, however each was hand painted, indeed the only variation between each canvas is the flavour of the soup. This contrast between the subject and its representation embodies the tension between high and low art, advertising and painting, that was at the crux of Warhol’s work and pop art. With Campbell’s Soup Cans, Warhol took a commonplace everyday item and elevated it to an iconic symbol of Pop Art. 

Campbell’s Soup Cans also mark a transitional moment for Warhol, as he moved from painting to his famous photographic-silkscreen printing process. Adopting this traditionally commercial technique, he thus linked his work even closer to advertising, claiming: “I don’t think art should be only for the select few, I think it should be for the mass of the American people.” Indeed, he would later return to the Campbell’s Soup Cans and reproduce the motif with this technique. 

Pioneering Pop Art 

Today Warhol’s work is iconic of 1960’s Pop Art. With his appropriation of familiar imagery, from consumer to celebrity culture and his commercially inspired techniques based on repetition, multiplicity, mirroring and replication he created timeless works such as Campbell’s Soup Cans which upend the hierarchies of art and culture.

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