On 9 July 1962, a 33-year-old New Yorker called Andy Warhol held his first exhibition as an artist. The show, at the Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles, introduced Pop Art to America’s West Coast, but it also introduced Campbell’s soup cans to gallery goers rather than supermarket shoppers.
Warhol’s 32 silkscreen images of the cans, each 20×16 inches, were shown resting on a shelf just as they would have been in a grocery store. Each individual image was labelled with one of Campbell’s 32 different varieties, which Warhol checked against a product list supplied by the company. (Its first flavour was tomato, introduced in 1897; the others included Pepper Pot and the disgusting-sounding Cheddar Cheese.)
When asked why he had chosen this motif, he replied: “Because 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. Someone said my life has dominated me. I liked that idea.”
The way Warhol had made the ordinary into the extraordinary and co-opted the commercial world made him a star. The cans became to the second half of the 20th century what Marcel Duchamp’s pissoir, Fountain 1917, was to the first half: the ultimate statement that art didn’t depend on aesthetics but was what its creator said it was.
I’ve got to do something that really will have a lot of impact, that will be different enough from Lichtenstein and Rosenquist, that will be very personal
As Duchamp himself put it, when asked about Warhol: “If you take a Campbell’s soup can and repeat it 50 times, you are not interested in the retinal image. What interests you is the concept that wants to put 50 Campbell’s soup cans on a canvas.”
For some, the idea encapsulates what went wrong with so much contemporary art; for others it was the starting point of a new and untrammelled definition.
The cans became Warhol’s default image: he used them again in the late 1960s, during the mid-1970s and as late as 1985. If Campbell’s made soup, it also made him. He returned to the idea of multiples over and over again, whether it was in images of Coke bottles and dollar bills or of screen stars such as Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor.
The reason? “I want everybody to think alike,” he said. “I think everybody should be a machine.” But then he had a gift for saying things for effect.
Where the idea came from
In one way he spoke the truth: the idea for the cans wasn’t even his. Warhol had long been fascinated by cartoons but heard that Roy Lichtenstein was, too, and had already started to turn comic strips into art. According to long-time friend Ted Carey, the idea for the cans came when he invited Warhol for dinner and was turned down because Warhol was too depressed.
Carey recalls: “He said, ‘I’ve got to do something. The cartoon paintings… it’s too late. I’ve got to do something that really will have a lot of impact, that will be different enough from Lichtenstein and Rosenquist, that will be very personal, that won’t look like I’m doing exactly what they’re doing.’ Then he said, ‘I don’t know what to do.’”
As a result he ‘bought’ an idea for $50 from Carey’s wife, Muriel, who said: “You’ve got to find something that’s recognisable to almost everybody. Something you see every day that everybody would recognise. Something like a can of Campbell’s soup.’”
Although they caused a huge fuss, the cans – at $100 a piece – didn’t sell well (although Dennis Hopper bought one). Critics complained that Warhol was treating the public like a mindless mass. A shop just down the road from the gallery put a stack of genuine cans on display with the slogan: “Get the real thing for $.29.”
Meanwhile, art critic Henry T Hopkins wrote drily: “Warhol obviously doesn’t want to give us much to cling to in the way of sweet handling, preferring instead the hard commercial surface of his philosophical cronies. But then house fetishes rarely compete with Rembrandt in aesthetic significance.
“However, based on formal arrangements, intellectual and emotional response, one finds favourites. Mine is Onion.”
The soup ended up smelling of roses, though. In 1996, a series owned by Irving Blum, a director of the Ferus Gallery, who had the prescience to buy them at the time, sold for $15 million. The most expensive first course in history.