Andy Warhol looking at Campbell's soup cans in a supermarket near the Factory, his studio, in 1965. Campbell's Soup Cans (1962) displayed at Warhol's first single artist show, and became one his first and most iconic images. Credit: Bob Adelman/Corbis.
NEW YORK - In mid-1961 Andy Warhol had reached a critical moment in his nascent artistic career. He had been working, quite successfully, as a commercial fashion illustrator for more than a decade and was increasingly intent on breaking into fine art. And to Warhol that meant the heady upper echelons of New York's art-world establishment – it meant acceptance into institutions like the Museum of Modern Art and Leo Castelli Gallery. But making the shift from commercial to fine artist was no easy task. He would have to forge a new path between these historically disparate practices.
Warhol was also reeling from a major setback. To his dismay, he had discovered that his earliest paintings, made in the beginning of '61 and drawing from newspaper ads and comic strips, bore a strong resemblance to the work of another aspiring young artist, Roy Lichtenstein. And Lichtenstein was already ahead in the game, showing his painting – which many agreed was more mature than Warhol's at the time – at Castelli Gallery. Warhol returned to his studio at 1342 Lexington Avenue determined to invent new and different work but searching for the right idea.
Recollections differ about what happened next, but it's likely that Warhol summoned friend, designer, and gallery owner Muriel Latow to his studio so the two could brainstorm. From their discussion came the revelation that led to Warhol's first iconic series of artworks. For his next major subject, he should take the Campbell's soup can. "The soup can was an ideal solution for Andy's ambivalent sensibility," write Warhol biographers Tony Scherman and David Dalton. "It fused his love of Americana – the Campbell's label had a folk-arty quality to it – but blown up and hung in an art gallery it would also be provocative enough to shock and draw attention to himself as an avant-garde artist."
Andy Warhol’s Campbells Soup Cans, 1962 on exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. © Nano Calvo/ZUMA Press/Corbis.
Warhol, already fascinated with the look, concept and implications of the reproduction, used silkscreens to execute a painting of each flavor of Campbell's soup, of which there were 32 at the time. They were resolutely repetitive, only distinguishable from each other by the name of the flavor on the label. "The array is severely frontal, like Byzantine portraits," writes art critic and philosopher Arthur C. Danto, "and the four rows of eight paintings each were like an up-to-date iconostasis – a wall of icons such as the one in the Orthodox church in which Andy's mother, Julia Warhola, worshipped in Pittsburgh when he was growing up."
Portrait of American pop artist Andy Warhol (1928 - 1987) (left), future film historian P. Adams Sitney (with beard), and poet Gerard Malanga in the Factory, Warhol's studio, New York, New York, September 5, 1964. Photo by Fred W. McDarrah/Getty Images.
The Soup Can paintings scored Warhol his first major one-man show, which took place in Los Angeles at the Ferus Gallery in July 1962 and was organized by Irving Blum, one of the gallery's directors and, following the show, the paintings' longtime owner. Warhol would go on to create nearly fifty canvases depicting one or more of the supermarket staples. Fittingly, by presenting a symbol of everyday commerce for high aesthetic consumption, Warhol likewise bridged the gulf he faced between commercial and fine art.
If a lowbrow consumer product helped launch Warhol's fine-art career, it would be a longtime subject of representative fine artists – again reproduced extensively per his newfound aesthetic – that would help solidify Warhol's place as a major proponent of the Pop art movement. In November 1964, Warhol had realized his dream of showing at Leo Castelli Gallery and chose to display a fresh series of work, simply and indifferently titled Flowers.
Andy Warhol in front of Flowers silkscreen in his 47th street studio called the Factory in New York. © Bob Adelman/Corbis.
All told, Warhol and his team at the Factory – the studio slash open house he established after the successes of the intervening years – created for his inaugural Castelli show, all variations on exactly the same source image. Warhol had appropriated a photograph of flowers from an issue of Modern Photography magazine. A Factory assistant repeatedly photocopied the image, which progressively stripped away any depth or detail. When the image was transferred with silkscreen to canvas (the Flowers paintings came in numerous sizes), an array of colors were used to give caustic new life to the flat, vacant blossoms. "They were so goddamn beautiful," art critic Peter Schjeldahl recalled after visiting a follow-up Flowers exhibit, showing at Illeana Sonnabend's Paris gallery. "That grainy look with that Day-Glo color was killer, and still is." @sothby's