Rainer Crone and Petrus Graf Schaesberg, ‘The Three Golden Rules of an Artist’ in: Exh. Cat., New York, Gagosian Gallery, Pop Art: The John and Kimiko Powers Collection, 2001, p. 89.
Warhol began creating portrait-style paintings of Campbell’s Soup cans in 1961. The artist famously declared that a daily, banal habit had motivated his choice of an equally prosaic subject: “I used to drink it. I used to have the same lunch every day, for twenty years, I guess, the same thing over and over again. Someone said my life has dominated me; I liked that idea” (Andy Warhol, quoted in: Kenneth Goldsmith, I’ll Be Your Mirror: The Selected Andy Warhol Interviews, Boston, 2004, p. 18).
The Campbell’s Soup paintings were first exhibited by the visionary art dealer Irving Blum at Ferus Gallery, Los Angeles, in 1962. The exhibition consisted of 32 works– a quantity prescribed by the company’s current product line –displayed in a single line on the gallery walls along grocery store shelving. The show caused an immediate furore in the local art scene – a neighbouring gallery owner, David Stuart, reacted by buying and displaying actual cans of Campbell’s Soup that were accompanied by an invitation to purchase them more cheaply with him – yet it was soon considered to be a pivotal moment, not only in Warhol’s career, but in the development of the then nascent movement of Pop art.
Warhol reinterpreted the soup cans in a portfolio of ten screenprints in 1968. This format and method of production served to refine and emphasise the key objectives behind the 1962 works: to create a seemingly impersonal and mechanised aesthetic in order to question artistic subjectivity; and to use repetition and slight variation to highlight qualities of ubiquity, monotony and abundance in everyday visual culture.
Though each portfolio of ten was published as a single work of art, they have frequently been disassembled over the years. Interestingly, the paintings followed an inverse trajectory. They were originally conceived as individual works, which, accordingly, the gallery began selling separately. However, over the course of the exhibition, Blum became increasingly aware of the collective impact of the works. He therefore persuaded the collectors to whom a handful of the works had been promised that the works should stay together, before purchasing all 32 canvases for his private collection.
Kirk Varnedoe, who later led the initiative to acquire the paintings for the Museum of Modern Art, explains the significance of Blum’s move: “The exhibition was a special event, where the whole was something more than the sum of its parts. Blum was right to see that event – the big stunt, the wholesale advertisement for the retail sales—as a superior creation, with meaning in its mass effect” (Kirk Varnedoe, ‘Campbell’s Soup Cans, 1962’ in Exh. Cat., London, Tate, Andy Warhol Retrospective, 2002, p. 41).
Varnedoe called this mass effect “the array”, and it is precisely this array that one can revel in when viewing the complete portfolio of Campbell’s Soup I. Here, much more effectively than the individual works are able, the group imposes itself on the viewer who must take in its uniformity and variety simultaneously.
Decades after its inception, Varnedoe endeavoured to capture the experience of looking at and thinking about “the array”: it is a “pleasure of exacerbated and lingering uncertainties… No summation or paraphrase anyone will ever write of it, nor any theoretical web to be spun around it, is ever even remotely likely to be anything like the panoply of things it effortlessly is all at once: hot, cold, heartless, funny, lively, boring, sad, outrageous, economical, memorable, vicious, stupid, sophisticated, crass and more” (Ibid., p. 45).
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