Campbell’s Soup Can links the iconic and quintessential Warholian image of 1960s Pop with his earlier work as a commercial illustrator. Created at the very crux of the artist’s transition from commercial illustration to the realm of fine art, Campbell’s Soup Can is heralded as the genesis of one of Warhol’s most important artistic obsessions: mass production. Impressive in scale and prodigious in scope, it stands as an astute allegory of its time and is truly without parallel within the salient artistic accomplishments of Andy Warhol's oeuvre. This is the first moment when Warhol’s vision was transcribed into physical form. Although best known for his silkscreen paintings, Andy Warhol was also an excellent draftsman. Drawing was a constant part of his artistic practice. As a child, he took classes at the Carnegie Museum of Art winning several awards for his drawings. He moved to New York and became one of the most successful commercial artists. It was with the soup cans however that Warhol tapped into the zeitgeist and entered into popular consciousness.
The present work, a splendid, rare example of Warhol’s most famed imagery from the 1960s, claims exceptional provenance as it belonged to the prolific Pop art collector Leon Kraushar. Along with top tier collectors of the 1960s such as Robert and Ethel Scull, Kraushar possessed one of the best Pop art collections of his time. He purchased Campbell’s Soup Can directly from Leo Castelli Gallery and one can imagine it hung in Kraushar's home proximate to other Warhol masterworks such as Orange Marilyn, Red Jackie, and Green Liz also purchased directly from Castelli. Kraushar's ownership of these three silkscreens was famously publicized in a July 1965 Life magazine photo-spread entitled "You Bought It, Now Live with It" with the works hanging above his bed. The present work, along with much of Kraushar’s collection, was purchased by the well-known German collector Karl Ströher in the late 1960s following Kraushar's death. Ströher possessed an impressive collection of modern and contemporary works and was one of the first European connoisseurs to include American Pop art in his collection. The current sale presents the unique occasion to acquire an artwork that graced the collections of two of the most prominent patrons of Pop art in the 20th Century.
Warhol’s famed Campbell’s Soup series was first displayed at Walter Hopps and Irving Blum’s Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles in July 1962. Not only was the show Warhol's first solo gallery exhibit, but it was also considered to be the West Coast premiere of Pop art. He exhibited 32 canvases, each measuring 20 by 16 inches; one for each flavor of soup manufactured by the food conglomerate at that time. The revolutionary paintings were displayed on small white shelves that ran along the perimeter of the gallery in a manner that intimated the shelves of a grocery store. Warhol was already experienced with the art of commercial display through his work on the Bonwitt Teller shop windows and this experience had a significant impact on Warhol’s thinking behind the radical installation at Ferus. So impressed with the Campbell's Soup series and the exhibition, Blum decided to keep the 32 canvases as an intact set and bought back the few sales. This pleased Warhol who had conceived of them as a set, and he agreed to sell the group for ten monthly $100 installments to Blum. The entire show is now housed as a collective in the Museum of Modern Art, New York. Through this exhibition, and its unabashed idolatry of the everyday object, Warhol established his own artistic language, and positioned himself alongside Roy Lichtenstein, Claes Oldenburg, and Tom Wesselmann at the very forefront of the Pop movement.
The soup can was the motif that catapulted Warhol to celebrity and for which he is still most readily associated. It perfectly distills those central tenets of his oeuvre—commercialism, ubiquity, beauty—and its display shifted the course of American art irrevocably. As subject matter, Campbell’s Soup Cans were perfectly suited to Warhol’s oeuvre. His artistry was built on an innate understanding of American post-war consumerism and he craved subjects that would be instantly recognizable to any observer of the work. In Warhol’s America, these soup cans were so ubiquitous as to be entirely unremarkable, displayed on shelves in every grocery store and supermarket in the country. To then paint and exhibit them was to elevate them into a new context, to ennoble them, and to demand that they experience renewed aesthetic consideration. Warhol loved them most for their universal appeal. As the years passed and his images became more widely lauded, they gained a quasi-religious status. They were the everyday icons of his overtly consumerist worldview and have since become that motif synonymous with his oeuvre.
The Campbell’s soup cans also appealed to Warhol's understanding of strong graphic representation. The basic design of the label was a classic—so successful that it had remained unchanged for decades, as it still does today. This fact was not lost on Warhol who appreciated the ability to convey a message with the minimum of visual means. In his seminal essay for the Warhol retrospective at New York's Museum of Modern Art in 1989, Benjamin H. D. Buchloh highlights the significance and stylistic influence that Warhol’s commercial illustrations from the 1950s had on his subsequent artistic output: “a more extensive study of Warhol’s advertisement design would suggest that the key features of his work of the early 1960s are prefigured in the refined arsenal and manual competence of the graphic designer: extreme close-up fragments and details, stark graphic contrast and silhouetting of forms, schematic simplification, and, most important, of course, rigorous serial compositions” (Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, ‘Andy Warhol’s One-Dimensional Art, in Exh. Cat., New York, Museum of Modern Art, Andy Warhol: A Retrospective, 1989, pp. 42-44).
In particular, Warhol's appropriation and manipulation of photographic source material was a formative technique that furnished his transition from illustrator to fine artist. Campbell’s Soup Can is a critical piece of evidence that enables us to chart the drastic changes that occurred in Warhol’s art. It is the bridge between his early commercial work and the iconic Pop art of the Sixties.
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