Andy Warhol quoted in: Victor Bockris, The Life and Death of Andy Warhol, London 1998, p. 144
Measuring just nine by six inches, Andy Warhol’s miniature painting Little Campbell’s Soup Can (Minestrone) is a truly captivating example of one of the most iconic and recognisable Pop symbols of twentieth-century American art. Executed in 1962, this exceptionally rare painting is one of only two Little Campbell’s Soup Cans of the same small scale to have been created by the artist, and belongs to Warhol’s body of hand-painted Ferus Type paintings. Boasting outstanding provenance, the work was housed in the eminent Tremaine Collection, and exemplifies the breakthrough of Warhol’s trademark inquiry into the nature of image-making. Few other images so clearly evoke the modernity of post-war America, as consumerism exploded and the commercial image of the American Dream swept the nation. Print and television advertising, industrial production, and the burgeoning middle class transformed America into a public ripe for consumption of material goods, art, and culture. As the trajectory of painting broke drastically away from the fetishism of artistic gesture that had defined Abstract Expressionism, Warhol pioneered his own brand of Pop art that incisively challenged the visual culture of a society saturated with images and driven by consumerism. The artist was interested above all else in mechanised means of mass-production. The universal appeal of the present work, however, is met with a suggestion of personal significance; some shred of childhood memory: “Many an afternoon at lunchtime”, the artist recalled, “Mom would open a can of Campbell’s for me, because that’s all we could afford, I love it to this day” (Andy Warhol cited in: Victor Bockris, The Life and Death of Andy Warhol, London 1998, p. 144). Intimate in scale yet iconic in subject matter, Little Campbell’s Soup Can (Minestrone) exemplifies the quasi-religious status that would come to define Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup series.
Born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in the USA in 1928, Warhol first moved to New York City in 1949 where he began a career in magazine illustration and advertising – an experience that was to prove invaluable in shaping his future aesthetic as an artist. Warhol began exhibiting his work during the 1950s, but it was in 1961 that Leo Castelli and Irving Blum first discovered his Campbell's Soup Can paintings, on separate visits to his Lexington Avenue studio. His first significant foray into the world of Pop art, the Campbell’s Soup series was first displayed at Walter Hopps and Blum’s Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles, in July 1962. Warhol exhibited thirty-two canvases in the show, each measuring twenty by sixteen 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. Indeed, 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.
Appropriated, re-contextualised and repurposed, the Cambell’s Soup Can motif would become the world famous, quintessential icon of Warholian Pop. As Henry Geldzahler recalls, “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 cited in: Victor Bockris, The Life and Death of Andy Warhol, London, 1998, pp. 159-60). A masterful dedication to one of the most enduring motifs of the Twentieth Century, Little Campbell’s Soup Can (Minestrone) is a consummately rare example of Warhol’s best known series. With its unusually petit scale and meticulous attention to detail and colour, the work perfectly distils the central tenets of Warhol’s oeuvre – namely: commercialism, ubiquity, beauty, and desirability. Recognising the vast influence this series would have on the canon of art history, the artist later proclaimed, “I should have just done the Campbell’s Soups and kept on doing them” (Andy Warhol cited in: Annette Michelson, Ed., Andy Warhol, Cambridge, Massachusetts 2001, p. 124).
Opening up a dialogue between the viewer and the composition, Warhol’s series of Campbell’s Soup Cans heroically engaged in a loaded semiotic game that would forever blur the boundary between art and commerce. In this subversion, the notion of authorship becomes obscured and the work of art begins to exist beyond the limits of its canvas. Artworks such as the present embodied the perfect subject matter for an artist whose entire craft was built on an innate understanding of American post-war consumerism; indeed Warhol sought to re-present objects and icons 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 across the country. To paint and exhibit them, then, was to elevate them into a grand 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, Little Campbell’s Soup Can (Minestrone) offers 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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