While Warhol had been in New York since 1949, it was in 1961 that Leo Castelli and Irving Blum discovered his Campbell's Soup Can paintings, his first genuinely Pop artworks, on separate visits to his Lexington Avenue studio. Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup series was first displayed at Walter Hopps and Irving Blum’s Ferus Gallery, in Los Angeles, in July 1962. He exhibited 32 canvases, each measuring 20 by 16 inches: one for each flavour 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 seemed to intimate the shelves of a grocery store. While this first show was met with little commercial success, Warhol’s haute treatment of the consumerist mundane sparked lively debate in critical circles and set the groundwork for the dominance of Pop Art in the coming decade. As Henry Geldzahler later recalled, “The Campbell’s Soup Can was the Nude Descending a Staircase of pop art. Here was an image that became an overnight rallying point for the sympathetic and the bane of the hostile. Warhol captured the imagination of the media and the public as had no other artist of his generation. Andy was pop and pop was Andy.” (Henry Geldzahler, quoted in V. Bockris, The Life and Death of Andy Warhol, London, 1998, pp. 159-60)
Predating the Ferus-type Campbell's Soup Cans, the present work belongs to a vaulted group of the earliest Mönchengladbach-type iterations of the iconic subject, named so for the widely known example in the collection of the Abteiberg Museum, Mönchengladbach. The two groups each derive their images from distinct sources: the first being an illustrated image reproduced in a magazine ad, as in the present work, while in the Ferus paintings Warhol turned to the logo printed on a Campbell's label. The Mönchengladbach-type paintings display the extraordinary process and conceptual underpinning of Warhol's development of this significant motif: in the clearly delineated pencil outlines, traced from a projected source of the can's shape, followed by carefully differentiated layers of color, the present work illuminates the artistic process behind the mass-reproduced image that Warhol appropriated. Just as in his Do It Yourself paintings, with these early Campbell's Soup Cans Warhol exposes the compositional structure behind the image. What Warhol achieves here with great invention and uncanny intellect is a tautly thrilling ambiguity, destabilizing traditional borders between the painted image and that which it represents.
Campbell’s Soup Can presents a dialogue not just between canvas and viewer but also engages in a loaded semiotic game that blurs the line between the artistic and the commercial. In this subversion, the notion of authorship is obscured and the work of art begins to exist beyond the limits of its canvas. As subject matter, Campbell’s Soup Cans were the perfect subject matter for Warhol. 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. Of course, having originally trained as a commercial artist, there is no doubt that Warhol would have held special appreciation for the effective logo. They were the everyday icons of his overtly consumerist worldview and have since become that motif most synonymous with his oeuvre. As such, Campbell's Soup Can is a thrilling glimpse into the genesis of the image that would catapult Warhol's artistic genius into the pantheon of art history.
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