Sotheby’s Prints & Multiples sale on 27 March includes a complete set of Warhol’s 1968 Campbell’s Soup I (F. & S. II.44-53) screenprints. The story of the original work is the story of one of the defining creations of the Pop Art Movement.
In 1962, the year in which Pop Art was established as the latest major artistic movement, Andy Warhol began his transition from hand-painted to photo-transferred art with a groundbreaking series of works. While these pieces mimicked a mechanical method of production, they were in fact hand-painted. The set of works was called simply Campbell’s Soup Cans, and would become one of the most iconic, signature pieces of his career.
Wishing to “be a machine,” Warhol would later reinterpret these works as screenprints in order to achieve the highly finished, mechanised look he desired. Campbell’s Soup I has subsequently become one of the most renowned series in his graphic oeuvre.
Searching for subjects for painting, it was a friend’s suggestion that he paint something everybody recognised, "like Campbell’s Soup", which gave Warhol his subject. Projections of the cans were traced onto canvas and hand-painted, making this first and original ‘batch’ of soup cans a work which appeared more uniform and mechanically produced than it really was. Between the 32 flavours, there are subtle differences and imperfections, meaning that this really was ‘high’ art dwelling on a ‘low’ — everyday, readily available or seemingly mundane — subject. The very essence of Pop Art itself.
The works were first exhibited by art dealer Irving Blum, who recognised them as a compelling departure from Warhol’s previous comic-strip paintings. He arranged an exhibition at his Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles, and exhibited the cans on grocery store shelves. At this first exhibition, despite indifference from the public, Campbell’s Soup Cans caused a sensation in the art world. The debate about how art could concern itself with something so everyday, and seem to mimic commercial mass production, ensured that the paintings received plenty of attention. An art dealer in a nearby gallery even sold actual soup cans by way of criticism, advertising them as cheaper than Warhol’s.
Ferus sold several individual Soup Cans, including one to his close friend, actor Dennis Hopper, but quickly recognised that they should be sold as a set. He bought back the few he’d sold, and agreed to pay Warhol —who was delighted, as the works had been conceived of as a set — $1000 over 10 months for all 32 works. After Warhol's death, Blum would eventually sell the set to New York's Museum of Modern Art for upwards of $15 million.
Many commentators credit this preservation of the set as key to the works’ success. "This made it different; it made it a statement," wrote journalist Sara McCorquodale in 2015: "The work seemed to speak of the spirit of a new America, one that thoroughly embraced the consumer culture of the new decade. Before the end of the year Campbell’s Soup Cans was so on-trend that Manhattan socialites were wearing soup can-printed dresses to high-society events."
Many critics mark this first exhibition of Campbell's Soup Cans as the turning point in Warhol's career. Turning to silkscreen printing, he continued to create soup cans and other works. By the time the 1964 exhibition The American Supermaket came around, he was selling individual Soup Cans for $1500. The American Supermarket even sold real cans of Campbells Soup, signed by Warhol, and sold them for $6.50 each.
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