Campbell’s Soup had been an American staple since the Nineteenth Century, and Warhol’s go-to meal ever since his humble Catholic upbringing in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. When asked in 1963 why he had chosen to paint a subject as commonplace as Campbell’s Soup cans, he candidly stated, "I used to drink it. I used to have the same lunch everyday for 20 years. I guess, the same thing over and over again.’’ (Georg Frei and Neil Printz, Eds., The Andy Warhol Catalogue Raisonné, Paintings and Sculpture 1961-1963, Volume One, New York, 2002, p. 50) A few years earlier, Warhol had seen Jasper Johns' first exhibition at Leo Castelli, which undoubtedly freed him to develop his own repertory of everyday objects as subjects for his drawings and painting. A true testament to its iconic place within American culture, the red and white label, cursive Campbell’s logo and gold seal of approval were first realized in the Nineteenth Century and became increasingly familiar in the Twentieth, particularly due to pervasive advertising, thriving industrial production, and the flourishing middle class, which transformed America into a public ripe for consumption of material goods, art, and culture. In Warhol’s America, these soup cans were so ubiquitous as to be entirely unremarkable, displayed on shelves in every supermarket in the nation. To then turn them into subjects of fine art was to elevate them into a new context, to ennoble them, and to demand that they experience renewed aesthetic consideration. Warhol reminds us that art is a staple of our American aesthetic intellect, just as soup is a staple of the American diet.
Though Warhol would return to the Campbell’s Soup can periodically throughout his career – briefly in 1965, and later as part of his 1970s Retrospectives and Reversals – it was during the initial period of 1961 and 1962 that the subject made its boldest conceptual claims. Through Campbell’s Soup Can and Can Opener, Warhol transforms his iconic yet static symbol of American culture into a meditation on temporality. The can’s lid is wrenched fully open as a reminder that even the most timeless objects are subject to decay. The moment the lid is lifted, the myth of vitality is shattered and the ubiquitous lunchtime staple becomes Warhol’s first memento mori. The product transforms from a pristine icon to a perishable substance, subject to the inevitable raves of time. Beyond Campbell’s Soup Can and Can Opener, the notion that even the most prevalent icons can function as memento mori would underpin his depictions of stars such as the illustrious Marilyn Monroe and the unidentified victims of Death and Disaster- their timeless images were held in tension with their ill-fated existence. Through the present example, Warhol explored his extraordinary draughtsmanship whilst simultaneously paving the way for the silkscreen works that would come to dominate his practice.
The present work was created the same year as Warhol’s pivotal solo debut at Walter Hopps and Irving Blum’s Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles during the summer of 1962, which launched the artist to international acclaim. Unlike the meticulously screen-printed Ferus-type Soup Cans, the present work is loaded with vestiges of the artist’s skilled and oftentimes removed hand as detail pops off the page. Together each shaded graphite letter, casting shadow and crisp outline creates a remarkable symphony teeming with an unavoidable sense of immediacy. Furthermore, the present drawing is exceptionally rare as there is only one painting featuring the same can opener. Warhol’s 1962 series of large scale paintings captures the inevitable passage of time through the physical actions of opening the lid, tearing off the label and then crushing the can, akin to Warhol's Car Crashes.
More than any artist before him, Warhol’s image, identity, and constructed public persona, were inextricably bound to his art. Despite his buzzing life as a celebrity, Warhol oftentimes retreated to his studio on Sundays, when it was relatively empty, to draw. Sundays were for going to church and drawing - the two most sacred activities in Warhol’s life – whereas the week was left to socialize. For Warhol, drawing is the one consistent medium spanning from his earliest days as an art student in the 1940s up until the last few weeks before his unexpected death in 1987. The careful yet immediate handling of graphite on paper and the charged inner meaning solidify Campbell’s Soup Can and Can Opener as one of the finest examples from Warhol’s expansive exploration of Campbell’s Soup cans. It was Warhol himself who best summed up his inextinguishable devotion to this subject matter, “I should have just done the Campbell’s Soups and kept on doing them.” (Andy Warhol quoted in Anette Michelson, Ed., Andy Warhol, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2001, p. 124)