In Andy Warhol’s time, no serious painter would have thought to paint such an ordinary object as a can of soup. But Warhol did. And his fame came from his ability to turn everyday objects into intriguing works of art.
There are contradicting stories published as to who gave Warhol the idea to paint soup cans. The most commonly printed version goes like this. In 1960, his friend Muriel Latow came to visit. During that time Warhol was discouraged with his work. He discovered that he was doing the same kind of modern comic strip art as another local artist Roy Lichtenstein but Roy was more successful. So, he asked Latow, who happened to own an art gallery herself, for advice. She said, “You should paint something that everybody sees everyday…like a can of soup.”
Cambell’s Soup Can – 1968
He took her advice. He started making “portraits” of each of the 32 varieties of Campbell’s soups against a white background. “Tomato soup will never be just tomato soup again,” said critic Ivan Karp quoted in Warhol, By David Bourdon.
Over the next two years, he continued to paint a series of Campbell’s soup cans. Sometimes he used stencils and other times he used pencil, ink, crayons, acrylic and oil paints. He painted enormous still lifes or sad-looking soups with torn labels. Often times he multiplied the can image with the silkscreen method. One of the most famous pieces in the series is 100 Cans multiplying Beef Noodle soup 100 times.
His soup series appeared in an art gallery in the summer of 1962. But not everyone appreciated his new approach to modern art. According to Andy Warhol: Pop Art Painter, by Susan Coldman Rubin, a supermarket stacked Campbell’s soup in the window with a sign that read, “the real thing for only 29 cents a can.” He used the public putdown as publicity. He took a photographer to the market and had his picture taken signing the cans of soup. The photo appeared in newspapers everywhere, according to Holy Terror: Andy Warhol Close Up, by Bob Colacello.
He went on to paint other inanimate objects in this artistic phase. He painted dollar bills, Brillo pads and Heinz ketchup boxes, and Coca-Cola bottles. “I just paint things I always thought were beautiful . . . things you use every day and never think about,” said Warhol, quoted in Victor Bockirs’ book The Life and Death of Andy Warhol. He had a way of choosing objects from American culture that have achieved a genuinely iconic status in contemporary civilization. Warhol often multiplied the images over and over on the same canvas creating the idea that his art like the objects themselves were made by a machine. Warhol even once said, “The reason I’m painting this was is that I want to be a machine.”
In 1980, Warhol declared that he wished to be remembered as a soup can, which may very well become the case. Now, his art is celebrated worldwide and shown continually in museums almost always showcasing his Campbell’s representations.
At the end of his career in 1983, The Campbell’s Soup Company hired him to create a new series of paintings of their dry soup mixes.
A reporter once asked him, “Did you ever image when you painted your first soup can, that it would become art?”
“No,” said Andy. “It’s like anything. You just work. If it happens, it happens.”