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.
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.
Warhol's wish not to be involved with Campbell's was scarcely idealism. It was more of a strategy: He wanted his work to be clearly identified as art - that was his commercial tie-in. He rarely divulged his aims, but the double-edged effect of his soup cans was to challenge the art world's habitual denigration of commercial art and to expose the actual - though heavily veiled - commercial underpinnings of the art world.
Either way, Warhol factually remained a commercial artist - but no more so than every other artist who tried to sell work to collectors or museums. Warhol was still, ironically, a commercial artist even when museums started to collect and show his work. His point may have been that Rubens was just as commercial. As for the museums, Warhol was prophetic: Today these elevated institutions look ever more commercial.
In 1985, by way of an intriguing recognition of all the free advertising he had given it, Campbell's approached Warhol and (according to biographer Bourdon) "hired [him] for an undisclosed sum" to produce paintings of their dry-soup mixes in order to boost sales.
Some art-world opinionmakers were "dismayed by [this] lucrative alliance with industry." With delicious irony, Warhol countered such criticism by reaffirming: "I was always a commercial artist."
Commercialism continues to hover around his soup cans. The 1968 silk-screen print reproduced on this page is owned by London's Tate Gallery. It has cost the Monitor more (despite generous concessions by the Tate) to reproduce this image - of a soup-can label! - than it cost the Tate to buy the work in 1978. Lot No. 180 in a Sotheby's sale cost L110.
On top of the museum fees, The Monitor also had to reimburse Andy Warhol's estate. The Warhol Estate reserves the right to prevent reproduction.
A POP-UP book has just been published in Britain called "Botticelli's Bed and Breakfast," by Jan Pienkowski. (Simon & Schuster plans to publish it in the United States this spring.) The book is a delightful fantasy, wittily representing a house full of works of art. It is great fun, but also educational. The Tate Gallery sells it in its bookshop, in fact.
Mr. Pienkowski wanted to include Campbell's Tomato Soup cans in the kitchen.
"The Warhol estate wouldn't allow it," Pienkowski says. "They said it was 'trivializing the master's work.' "
What did they imagine? That Pienkowski's artifact would render commonplace or commercial the work of an artist whose art deliberately propagated the commonplace and commercial? I have a book by Warhol called his "Index Book" in which are several pop-ups, one of them a can of Hunt's tomato paste! Clearly Warhol liked such paper-engineering. Why does his estate now consider it beneath him?
Meanwhile, the market value of Warhol's work has risen astronomically beyond the popular pocketbook. On Dec. 5 and 6, Sotheby's in London is holding a print sale that includes a set of 10 soup-can prints by Warhol. He made two such sets, in 1968 and 1969, each containing 10 different soups. Both sets were in editions of 250.
That's a lot of prints. When the Tate bought its "black bean" in 1978, it paid about $170 by today's conversion rates. Now Sotheby's estimates that the set of 10 they are offering should fetch between L15,000 and L20,000.
No wonder this old master is no longer a pop-up artist.