With resounding institutional affirmation, the signature motif that propelled Warhol’s meteoric ascent to stardom is considerably enhanced within Colored Campbell’s Soup Can; the brilliant palette of burnt orange, cool violet and deep amber crackles brightly against a crisply spray-painted white ground. Executed in 1965, the masterful reworking of the soup can image signifies Warhol’s conceptual negotiation between the instantly recognizable and the anonymously crafted. As Warhol’s first true subject, pursued to the point of obsession between 1961 and 1962, the early Campbell’s Soup paintings effectively launched the artist’s career. The suite of thirty-two paintings premiered in 1962 at the Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles, and the resulting show – his solo debut – catapulted Warhol to international acclaim. These small, hand painted soup cans, each displaying the various Campbell’s flavors, were later acquired by the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in a milestone acquisition. Campbell’s Soup was no longer simply a staple of American grocery stores and otherwise banal object of Warhol’s fascination, but now transformed into an iconic totem of commercialism, ubiquity and beauty.
The significance of Colored Campbell’s Soup Can is deeply intertwined with the artist’s personal identity, further elevating the quasi-religious status of the widely lauded soup can image. Described by Warhol as his favorite paintings and to some extent, a relic of his childhood, Campbell’s Soup is portrayed as a symbol of bereavement for his mother’s passing: “You know, when I was little, my mother always used to feed us this kind of soup…But now she’s gone, and sometimes when I have soup I remember her and I feel like she’s right here with me again.” (Suzy Stanton, “On Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Can,” 20 May 1962, reproduced in David Bourdon, Warhol, New York 1995, p. 99) Warhol’s mother was indeed alive at the time of this interview and during the creation of Colored Campbell’s Soup Can, and even more surprising, the idea of painting the soup can initially came from a friend and designer in his circle, Murile Latow. After being refused at the end of 1961 by Leo Castelli’s assistant for representation, Warhol turned to Latow for advice on the right subject matter; after writing a check for $50 to Latow she explained: “You should paint something that everybody sees every day, that everybody recognizes...like a can of soup.” (Muriel Latow, quoted in Victor Bockris, The Life and Death of Andy Warhol, London, 1998, p. 143) Colored Campbell’s Soup Can is thus represented as the ultimate expression of nostalgia while simultaneously being born out of sheer commercialism.
In a unique nod to its own enterprise, the Campbell Soup Company commissioned Colored Campbell’s Soup Can alongside eighteen other dazzlingly rich and vividly hued canvases, to honor their retiring Chairman of the Board of Directors, Oliver G. Willits. The present work not only demonstrates Warhol’s extraordinary draughtsmanship, it traces the arc of the development in his artistic practice and reworking of his most famous image. The original 1962 soup cans were created using a stencil derived from a photograph by Edward Wallowitch, the slight inconsistencies and pencil marks amongst these hand-painted works revealing the only traces of the artist’s hand. Colored Campbell’s Soup Can pushes the refinement of the artist’s mechanical process further, as the original three stencils are re-used and injected with a brilliantly charged palette, a departure from what Warhol called real color - red, white, gold, silver and black. The grounds of these glittering, shimmering canvases were spray-painted with the lower Campbell’s and Condensed labels in various hues, while the lid and bottom rim of each design were left to reveal the antecedent colors beneath. The sleek treatment of Colored Campbell’s Soup Can is the result of a polished production process, in which each painting was created layer by layer, unlike the initial group of soup cans, each painstakingly crafted canvas by canvas.
The masterful refinement of the image in Colored Campbell’s Soup Can illustrates the heightened product awareness and discernment of the overall Warhol brand while bearing no evidence of the artist’s hand, creating an extraordinary sense of anonymity at the pinnacle of his stardom. The recent Whitney exhibition, Andy Warhol – From A to B and Back Again, showcases the lasting celebrity and broad appeal of the present work, as it continues to be one of the most enduring motifs, by one of the most continually relevant artists of our time.
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