Why did Andy Warhol paint pictures of Campbell's soup cans?
Why not, say, cans of Chef Boyardee ravioli? Or B&M baked beans? Why not Alpo, one of the first commercially available canned dog foods? Alpo was manufactured in Allentown, Pa., across the state from Pittsburgh, Warhol's hometown.
Supermarkets stocked lots of canned goods, circa 1960. Any one of them could have signified the ubiquity of commercial imagery in contemporary American life. Any one of them could epitomize modern mass production at its most banal. Those are the usual reasons given for Warhol's full-bore move into Pop imagery, which began in 1961-62 with "Campbell's Soup Cans."
This weekend marks the 49th anniversary of their controversial public debut. Warhol's renowned suite of 32 small canvases was shown for the first time at a Los Angeles gallery, the only gallery willing to take a chance on the virtually unknown New York artist. The mundane commercial subject matter bewildered an art world more used to avant-garde abstraction, not to mention a public already skeptical of Modern art. Bemused, a neighboring gallery stacked a pyramid of actual soup cans in its window, along with a sign that boasted, "Get the real thing for only 29 cents a can."
Until now, the entire group apparently hasn't been on public view in L.A. since that landmark 1962 Ferus Gallery show. To observe the anniversary, the Museum of Contemporary Art has borrowed the "Campbell's Soup Cans" and installed them in its Grand Avenue building, where they will remain through Labor Day.
The suite of "Campbell's Soup Cans" is today a centerpiece in the permanent collection of New York's Museum of Modern Art. There, they illustrate an epochal shift away from the European-based abstraction that dominated the School of Paris before World War II as well as the 1950s New York School after. But the question remains: Why soup rather than any of the scores — or even hundreds — of other commercial products?
Remarkably, in the nearly half-century since Warhol painted his signature work, there has been no satisfactory answer. MOMA's wall label claims that the surprising subject is easy to explain: Warhol said that for 20 years he ate Campbell's soup every day for lunch. But frankly, if you buy that, you might also be in the market to acquire a bridge down in Brooklyn.
Others have been credited with suggesting the subject to him, most notably interior designer Muriel Latow. Maybe so. What matters, though, isn't who got the idea. What matters is Warhol's decision that the subject was worth painting.
I have a different answer to the question "Why soup?" — one that I don't believe has been proposed before now. It takes some explaining. But the short answer is this: Soup was essential studio slang, the conversational lingo among New York School painters when they talked about their work.
Specifically, soup was the metaphor used by Willem de Kooning — the most successful artist of the era — to characterize his robust Abstract Expressionism. If soup worked for him, why not for Warhol?
A 'Sketchbook' start
De Kooning candidly describes his art's aesthetic linchpin in "Sketchbook No. 1: Three Americans," a 1960 movie by the Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker Robert Snyder. (Igor Stravinsky and Buckminster Fuller were the other two Americans.) The film is rarely seen today; but as the camera rolls, the word tumbles straight out of the expatriate Dutchman's mouth. Soup, the artist says, is what he always painted.
In the movie, De Kooning is dapper in a checked sport coat and no tie. He is seated at a large round table in his studio, among a group of fellow artists and critics. Landscape-related gestural abstractions lean against the wall behind him, including 1957's "Parc Rosenberg," a large canvas dominated by an energetically brushed cobalt-blue shape colliding with passages of black, brown, white and chrome-yellow. The room is dark. The artists and writers are spotlighted by the bright illumination necessary for filming. Half-empty liquor bottles and coffee cups litter the table, while curls of cigarette smoke drift through the air.
The cinematic setup is obviously meant to recall legendary nights spent drinking coffee and talking about art at "The Club," the informal Eighth Street loft shared by a then-impoverished group of New York artists, or perhaps carousing at the blue-collar Cedar Tavern, the downtown painters' hangout on nearby University Place. The Cedar is where De Kooning and Jackson Pollock, the two most celebrated Abstract Expressionists, once famously fell out into the street in a playful, drunken argument over which one was the greatest living American artist. The filmed conversation, peppered with insider jokes and full of knowing glances among intimates, covers aesthetic territory no doubt well rehearsed on many evenings fueled by caffeine or Scotch.
De Kooning sits at the center of the frame. He is flanked on one side by his fellow Abstract Expressionist and drinking buddy Franz Kline and on the other by his champion Harold Rosenberg, the brilliant and contentious ARTnews critic. ("Parc Rosenberg" refers to him.) There's the great Realist painter and erudite art critic Fairfield Porter, plus abstract colorist Herman Cherry. Seated with his back to the camera is Michael Sonnabend, writer and independent Dante scholar.
In the carefully blocked composition, Sonnabend is a repoussoir figure, the outside observer who questions the artist on the viewer's behalf. The key inquiry he makes to De Kooning concerns the degree to which an artist, representing all of humankind, defines his own reality.
"I want to ask you a question," Sonnabend says, "if you are creating yourself as you painted your picture?" In other words: Does a human being's dynamic experience create life's meaning? Or, does human life already have a meaningful essence?
De Kooning greets this existential inquiry with genial aplomb, before waving it away like a bothersome housefly. A common question in the period's critical discourse, it is clearly one whose answer he has recited many times.
"Everything is already in art," the painter gently demurs. "Like a big bowl of soup. Everything is in there already, and you stick your hand in and you find something for you."
In the soup
"Like a big bowl of soup." De Kooning is talking the way artists talk among themselves, not the way critics, curators, theoreticians or historians write about art — and not even the way artists describe their practice on formal occasions. In the intimate environment of his studio, among fellow painters and friends, the high-flown existential mysteries and profound philosophical dramas of painting are handily reduced to soup.
Snyder, the filmmaker, certainly had posterity in mind for his project. He had won the Oscar for "The Titan: Story of Michelangelo," a feature-length 1950 documentary. He was nominated for a second Academy Award for a 1958 nature-study narrated by Gregory Peck. Now he was making a three-part film about arguably America's greatest living avant-garde painter, most renowned musician and deepest thinker. In it, the painter explains that art's fundamental nature equals soup.
At 56, De Kooning stood at the pinnacle of New York's art heap. Famously handsome, he was a bona fide artist-celebrity. In the words of his friend, the playwright and essayist Lionel Abel, walking with him through Greenwich Village was like "being with a movie star." Heads turned and strangers stopped him in the street. It's no surprise that Warhol, a wildly successful commercial artist in the 1950s who really wanted a fine art career, would soon decide that he should paint soup too. He set his considerable advertising skills to the task.
De Kooning's influence on Warhol is seldom acknowledged, but his exalted stature would surely have been envied by the celebrity-obsessed younger artist, then 32. Such public eminence for a Modern American painter was virtually unprecedented. Warhol, employing a logic difficult to debate, soon chose soup's most famous brand to sanctify in paint on canvas.
For nearly 50 years an argument has raged over whether Pop art is a joyful celebration of popular culture or a sharp critique of it. But the contradiction implied in those polar opposites is actually easy to resolve: Both arguments are wrong, simply because both are beside the point.
The remarkable "Campbell's Soup Cans," painted by a gifted member of an ambitious new generation of artists, did not assess pop culture at all. Instead, they performed a pointed appraisal of the art establishment's entrenched status quo. Pop art's real genius is its acute critique of high culture's supercilious conceits. If the avant-garde understood art as soup, why beat around the bush? Just paint it!
At Ferus Gallery 49 years ago, a cultural page was turned. De Kooning's obscure, subjective and abstract soup passed to Warhol's brand — familiar, detached, commercial and definitively American.