Say what you will about homemade soup’s superiority to its storebought, shelf-stable stand-in. The tin can may not be beloved by gourmands, but it granted 20th-century soup immortality, commercial ubiquity and Pop-Art stardom.
Invented to feed Napoleon’s army, early tinned foods became a status symbol for mid-19th-century Europeans until increased mechanization brought cheaper canned goods to the masses.
In 1869 a fruit merchant eponymously founded the Joseph A. Campbell Preserve Company; his ready-to-serve beefsteak tomato soup quickly became his most popular item. While inexpensive to make, the heavy soup was costly to transport until 1897, when an enterprising Campbell’s chemist reduced it—and its shipping costs. A year later, Campbell’s donned its simple red and white label. It has since changed little. The screen printing process Andy Warhol employed to create his 32 Campbell’s Soup Cans followed a similar trajectory. Stenciling, from which screen prints evolved, has been with us since we supped in caves, but, like soup, it underwent major changes during the industrial revolution when its ease of replication attracted commercial interest.
The artistic process was industrialized, but it wouldn’t be long before artists reappropriated it. By the time Warhol learned the technique in 1961 he had already earned commercial success as an advertising illustrator for Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar and The New Yorker. This ad work piqued his interest in the commercial process’s aesthetic dimensions. In 1962, after churning out screen prints of dollar bills, he turned his attention to an item with which he was intimately familiar: soup.
“I used to drink it,” he later recalled of his primordial muse. “I used to have the same lunch every day, for 20 years.” Back then Campbell’s produced four out of every five cans of soup; its label was embedded in the American consumer’s subconscious.
From 32 stencils, one for each Campbell’s flavor at the time, Warhol printed nearly identical portraits of soup cans onto canvasses, complete with such claims as “New!” and “Great As A Sauce Too!” At the groundbreaking gallery show, to emphasize the meeting place between the traditionally opposed fields of fine and commercial art, he hung each portrait on the wall and also displayed each on a supermarket- tyle shelf. Like soup itself, handmade art had been displaced by the mechanically produced, the infinitely replicable.
With this gallery showing, Warhol—and the Pop-Art movement for which he was the standard bearer—became the artistic soup du jour, supplanting the Abstract-Expressionist movement and its resistance to generic, mass-produced consumer culture. Where painters like Jackson Pollack created spontaneous, process-driven and un-replicable splattered “action paintings,” Warhol and his Pop-Art cohorts embraced media and advertising as defining aspects of the modern world. His Campbell’s Soup Cans, which applied Henry Ford’s vertical integration to art, rebuked originality. Fittingly, many of Warhol’s works were produced by an assembly line of assistants in his infamous east-Midtown studio known as “the Factory.”
Warhol, fascinated by what he called the “democratizing sameness” of mass culture, went on to create reproductions of well-known products and their human counterparts like Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor, narrowing the gap between socalled high and low art and taking portraiture from the gallery to the galley, from the Kitchen to the kitchen.
While postmodern eaters and art-lookers alike may hanker for the handmade, industrialization paid mmm-mmm-good dividends for the shareholders of the Campbell’s Soup Company, which now sells almost three billion cans of soup every year. And by 1970 Warhol had topped the record auction price for a painting by a living American artist with his Big Campbell’s Soup Can with Torn Label (Vegetable Beef) (1962) going for $60,000. In 2006, Small Torn Campbell’s Soup Can (Pepper Pot) (1965), sold for $11.8 million.
Warhol’s original 32 cans are on display at the MoMA, where they hang in chronological order by the year Campbell’s introduced each condensed soup to the market, starting with Tomato in 1897.
Photograph: (c) 2007 Andy Warhol Foundation/ARS, NY/TM Licensed by Campbell’s Soup Co. All rights reserved.