Andy Warhol Keeps Popping Up
A soup can is a soup can is a soup can. Isn't it? Well, no. Not since the early 1960s when a soup can became a Warhol.Skip to next paragraph
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Like Leonardo with the Mona Lisa, the Campbell's Soup can is the first thing everyone associates with American Pop artist Andy Warhol. But when they appeared, not everyone in the art world approved.
There were mumblings about art having to do with higher things than Scotch Broth (a Hearty Soup) or New England Clam Chowder.
But the problem was not just the subject matter but the way Warhol presented it. His subject was not soup, or soup cans, but soup-can labels - the commercial packaging of soup (or even, arguably, the representations of them in printed advertisements) rather than their contents. Lack of "content," indeed, was to be seen as Warhol's hallmark.
But the art world's early objections to Warhol's soup cans is puzzling since this kind of thing was not entirely new to painting.
Still lifes had long represented the most commonplace objects. Earlier this century, artists had gone much further, breaking all the rules about what was considered art. Anything could be lifted out of the "real world" and presented unaltered in a gallery as "art." Marcel Duchamp had exhibited a snow shovel. Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns were only the latest to exploit such freedoms.
Other painters had been fascinated by packaging. In the 1950s, Stuart Davis had made heroic-ironic paintings out of a matchbook cover advertising Champion spark plugs, and as far back as 1924 a painting called "Odol." (Odol was a cleanser.)
Edouard Manet, in his 1881-2 "A Bar at the Folies-Bergre," had zestfully painted a foreground still life featuring recognizably labeled bottles. Art historian Carol Armstrong has pointed out that the (albeit illegible) labels, the paper-and-foil decorations, and the glass and shapes of the bottles "all serve clearly signifying functions - reproducing the advertising strategies of product design." (Manet as Pop artist.)
By Warhol's day, Manet's painting had long ago entered the upper reaches of "great art." And Stuart Davis had, in his later years, been heaped with honors by the art world.
The problem with Warhol's "product designs" was that his presentation of them was hardly presentation at all, and certainly not the kind of transformation that art is supposed to bring to the world. There was little or no evidence that his soup cans had passed through a thinking mind. Noncommittal and deadpan, Warhol deliberately refused to repackage his subject as "art" with some unmistakable signal of style or medium. Instead his technique pretty much replicated the stencilling practices of commercial art - flat, repetitive, and a touch slipshod.
High art - if that is what this was - had never looked so much like low (commercial) art.
Oddly, although he had started out as a commercial artist, Warhol's work in that field had been personal compared with the depersonalized work he was now pitching to art dealers in Manhattan. But even they - peddlers of art that they did not want to be thought of as "commercial" at all - were at first doubtful about the viability of Warhol's "art." Art was supposed to be above the petty consideration of money.
These initial doubts soon vanished. The reason? The dealers presumably found that Warhols were saleable.
Warhol, as biographer David Bourdon records, consciously avoided any commercial tie-in with the Campbell's company. He never asked permission to use their labels (would he have been so incautious today?), and Campbell's in turn never protested his use of their trademark icon. After all, he was not using their label to sell soup, and even today Campbell's labels are not copyrighted.