Andy Warhol: who knew a soup can would become so iconic?

Celebrating what would have been Andy Warhol’s 92nd birthday today, we are delving in to explore one of our most iconic pieces in our collection: his 1968 Oyster Stew Soup. The American artist became a pioneering figure within the Pop Art movement of the 1960s, who controversially blurred the lines between art and material culture. Even before he was making art destined for galleries, Warhol was a successful illustrator living in New York, who had emerged from a childhood of poverty in Pittsburgh to become one of the most prolific twentieth century artists, whose influence remains renown today. Our visitors, whether it’s their first time to the gallery or one of many trips, are always drawn to Warhol’s Oyster Stew Soup piece and is admired and enjoyed by a variety of people.

Andy Warhol, between 1966 and 1977

It’s funny to imagine how something as ordinary as a soup can could just pop into someone’s head and become a symbol of their artistic expression. When thinking about Warhol’s motivations behind the iconic image, it’s important to consider the context that it was produced in. In 1950s America, far reaching advertising trends were becoming established in the cultural and economic environment. Traditional media such as radio, newspapers and magazines remained prominent during the early years of the decade, but television quickly became the foundation for many national advertisers (Ad Age, 2003). It was during this time that the popularity of television skyrocketed, where 77% of households in the US purchased their first television set during this decade (Television History). Alongside the rise of television, the later part of the decade was a period of mass consumerism. Marketers continued to offer new and improved products to keep up with high consumer demand which went hand in hand with mass advertising.

This new age of advertising and consumerism had a profound effect on the art world and paved the way for the rise of the Pop Art movement. This style of art emerged in the 1950s and flourished in the 1960s in both the US and Britain, primarily influenced by popular and commercial culture, and led to the establishment of many artists.

Warhol was successful in making his art stand out during the emergence of this new art movement. By focusing on ordinary items, such as Campbell’s soup cans, Warhol made art that appealed to the masses, that anybody could relate to, and this is what elevated his art to a more distinctive level than his contemporaries. Yet, Warhol stumbled upon the soup can image almost by accident. According to a famous story, during one evening in 1961, he was complaining to his friends about the prolific number of Pop artists and asked if anyone could think of pop-culture images that no one else had used. A decorator named Muriel Latow came forward with a suggestion, but she asked for fifty dollars up front before she would reveal it. The unabashed Warhol wrote her a check; she then said “you’ve got to find something that’s recognisable to almost everybody…something like a can of Campbell’s Soup’ (Acocella, 2020). This was a turning point in Warhol’s career; the art critic Gopnik labels this Warhol’s ‘eureka moment’ (Gopnik, 2020).

Campbell’s Soup Cans,  Special edition with Andy Warhol’s signature, photo Jonn Leffmann / CC BY

The day after Latow’s suggestion, Warhol went to the Finast supermarket across the street and came home with one can of every kind of Campbell’s soup on sale there. The following year, in 1962, he had produced Campbell’s Soup Cans, a montage of all thirty-two varieties, which now hangs in the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Contemporary acclaim of Warhol’s soup cans was not immediate as his representation of the brand did not lead to sudden commercial demand. However, his association with the subject had a lasting impact as his name became synonymous with the Campbell’s Soup Can paintings and in 2007 his 1964 Large Campbell’s Soup Can sold in Sotheby’s to a South American collector for £5.1 million (Sparkes, 2019). In rapid succession, the Campbell’s Soups were followed by Warhol’s renown Pop paintings: Green Coca-Cola Bottles (1962); 192 One Dollar Bills (1962); and the Marilyn Monroes, Elizabeth Taylors and Elvises.

Through his depictions of the everyday, Andy Warhol spun a positive light on ordinary culture. Contrasting against Van Gogh’s Sunflowers, da Vinci’s Mona Lisa or Picasso’s Guernica, the simple soup cans shook up the art world. Not only did it spark debates on what was considered to be art, but it also made art accessible to all. His minimal style and use of everyday recognisable objects were a fresh way of creating art that people from all walks of life could relate to, ‘from famous pop stars to stay at home mums’ (Sparkes, 2019). But his work wasn’t always received with acclaim; Warhol’s art became innately controversial as questions were raised surrounding the ethicality of his work, due to his ability to make a lot of money from his art and his purchase of ideas from other people. The basis of Warhol’s ideology was that by playing the role of businessman, artists could turn themselves into a living example of commodification that he believed no one could avoid (Gopnik, 2018); a belief that was revolutionary amongst the elitism of the art world. However, many viewed this business approach as almost tainting his work, rendering it less genuine. By the late 1970s, Warhol faced heavy criticism for becoming merely a “business artist”. In 1979, reviewers disliked his exhibits of portraits of 1970s celebrities, describing them as superficial and commercial, lacking depth (Lando, 2008). Yet these reviewers failed to understand his artwork as an honest mirror and exploration of American culture. The controversy surrounding Warhol’s artistic style only added to his contribution to the shifting status and role of an artist. Whether you agree or disagree with his motivations and actions as an artist, it is undeniable that Andy Warhol was an iconic artist, whose unique style made a lasting imprint on the arts.

Andy Warhol in Stockholm, 1968

Through his artistic practice, Andy Warhol both satirised and celebrated material culture. His depiction of Campbell’s Soup Cans, as well as other consumer goods, could be perceived as a critique of a culture obsessed with money and fame. Alternatively, his focus on consumerism could suggest a celebration of American culture and prosperity, a glorification of the consumer lifestyle of his contemporaries. Whether a celebration or criticism, his artworks of everyday culture were successful in disseminating art to all levels of society. From his refreshing perspective, he created a new and unique role of the artist, that not only transformed the art world for the better, but made art accessible to all.

References

Image, Television History.

Joan Acocella, ‘Untangling Andy Warhol’, The New Yorker (June, 2020)

Blake Gopnik, Warhol: A Life as Art (Penguin Books, 2020)

Luke Sparkes, ‘Why was Andy Warhol’s work so famous?’, Smith and Partner (August, 2019)

Blake Gopnik, ‘Andy Warhol Inc., How he made business his art’, The New York Times (November, 2018)

Michal Lando, ‘Reexamining Warhol’s Jews’, The Jerusalem Post (April, 2008)

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