April 25th-October 18th 2015
When thinking of Andy Warhol, it is impossible not to conjure up images of the infamous Campbell’s soup cans. These pieces are signature works in Warhol’s career, and a landmark in the esteemed MoMA collection. In this exhibition, we are privy to the original thirty-two Campbell’s Soup canvases that swept the nation, filled the art scene with utter confusion and bewilderment, and led to a turning point in the perception of Pop Art.
For the first time ever at MoMA, the soup cans are displayed in a line (rather than a grid), echoing the manner in which Warhol exhibited them at the LA-based Ferus Gallery in 1962. The exhibition also includes drawings and illustrated books that Warhol created in the 1950s, when he forayed into his career as a commercial artist, and additional paintings and prints from the 1960s when he became a true beacon of the Pop movement.
The soup cans can be succinctly interpreted as a showcase of Warhol’s transition from commercial art to fine art. The individual paintings were produced by a printmaking method, a semi-mechanized screen printing process that uses a non-traditional painterly style.
For Warhol, the reliance on themes from popular culture helped to usher in Pop Art as a major movement in the United States. The soup cans were a true breakthrough for Warhol, allowing him to apply his seminal strategies of serial reception and reproduction to key subjects derived from American commodity culture.
For Warhol, information was art. Though we may find it completely commonplace nowadays to view captioned and labeled images, the nuances of each label and the novelty of reading label descriptions as a component of an artwork was unheard of at the time. The soup cans are the prime example of a Pop cultural movement becoming an art historical– one could go as far as to say that their initial display in 1962 was the birth of Pop Art.
Warhol’s combination of a semi-mechanized process, non-painterly style and commercial subject initially caused offense, as the work’s blatantly mundane commercialism represented a direct offense to the technique and philosophy of abstract expressionism. Contrary to any previous artistic school of thought or training, Warhol deliberately sought the precision of mechanical reproduction. Consequently, his motives as an artist were consistently questioned yet all this public commotion helped transform Warhol from an accomplished 1950s commercial illustrator to a notable fine artist. This leap of faith allowed Warhol to distinguish himself from other rising Pop artists, and has given him the legacy he has today and will have forever.
Though it is easy to argue that looking at one soup can is like looking at them all, there is something quite astounding about seeing them all spread out in one space. In fact, they are remarkably expressive. In their deadpan, ironic manner, they speak to us about the epitome of life in the 20th century America, post-WW2 atrocities.
Warhol’s gift was capturing the cultural zeitgeist of the time in the early 1960s, when mass consumerism was just beginning to blossom in America. Consumers were becoming increasingly aware and conscious of advertisements, design and branding. Ads, in turn, were becoming more sophisticated and appealing to the consumers’ knowledge that they were being advertised to. Warhol tapped into the culture of mass consumption and this makes his work ironic and instantly recognizable. By not spelling out the meaning of his subjects and be adopting an air of nonjudgmental detachment, Warhol allowed each viewer to determine his or her own opinion towards the art.
Funnily, Warhol himself had eaten a Campbell’s soup every day for twenty years. It was a time when industrialized production and universal distribution of food seemed a modern miracle. Warhol made art about aspects of life that were real and accessible to the masses. Though the cans, on the one hand, can be interpreted as soulless and the embodiment of mass production, they are also icons.