In the 1960s the American pop artist Andy Warhol reinvented the art aesthetic and transformed the way we look at the world. Like other great names in art, his work is a turning point, a fulcrum with a distinct before and after. Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio intensified the drama, emotion, light and dark establishing the Baroque art movement, Édouard Manet chose essence over realism and birthed impressionism and Marcel Duchamp placed a urinal on a plinth in a gallery and created the Ready-Made.
Pop Art’s interest in the lifestyle and objects of ‘low culture’ had been around for almost a decade before Warhol painted his soup cans. British artist Richard Hamilton is widely credited as starting the movement with his 1956 collage, Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing? The interest in magazine and commercial culture continues in Warhol’s art of the 60s but he is the first artist to perfect and popularise the movement. Warhol takes the tangled mass of meaning, interpretation, critical thinking and art history and succeeds in clarifying, and distilling the immediacy so anyone can understand his work. In short, he simplifies Pop Art and in doing so, redefines it.
Warhols Pop Art can be enjoyed for its subtextual meaning or simply for its instantly recognisable and simple subjects. He succeeds in making art democratic. His Coke bottles, his Brillo Pad boxes, the converse trainers and even his portraits of Marilyn Monroe all point to consumption, something we all participate in. Each is a singular iconic representation that speaks of capitalism and mass consumerism. Nowhere is this more evident than with his Campbells Soup cans.
This work, Big Campbell’s Soup Can, 19¢ (Beef Noodle) is a slight departure from the other soup of the same year. The usual brightly coloured label offers us the scripted ‘Campbells’ text with a pronounced shadow under the lettering. Another font, this time bold capital letters for the word ‘Condensed’, then the gold circle (an interpretation of the gold quality seal on the real cans) lies between the upper red portion and the lower white. In the lower portion we have ‘Beef Noodle’ in the same red colour, but now in a larger capitalised bold font. Beneath that is the ornate quasi-medieval gold and black font reading ‘Soup’ above a row of 10 fleur de lis. So far, similar to his other soup can screen prints.
However, where he usually depicts the can closed and facing squarely outward, here he has chosen to open the can, reveal its ’19 Cents’ price to us on the lid and even rotate the whole can slightly to the right. It’s perhaps the closest Andy Warhol will ever come to painting a still life. Here, in this white negative space, this can stands alone, not part of a wider repeated composition. It is almost as if this can was taken aside to be consumed rather than admired as art. The lid of the can juts upwards sharp and dangerous revealing the silver grey inside the can. It appears the contents of the can are gone and we are left with the high-shine metallic interior.
Surprisingly small, this screen print is only 21 x 11 cm. (8.3 x 4.3 in.) giving it a very different visual impact from the other Campbells cans of the same year. Whereas other works are presented as vast altarpieces, this is more akin to a modest personal shrine.
Warhol, a devout Byzantine Catholic, attended church on his own and with his mother throughout his lifetime. A graphic commercial illustrator before he became an art sensation, it is easy to imagine how he might have fused religious iconography with secular consumerism in his work. Therefore interpreting Big Campbell’s Soup Can, 19¢ (Beef Noodle) as his version of a small personal shrine is highly plausible. This is also reinforced by his famous Marilyn Diptych of the same year. The choice of ‘Diptych’ (meaning a hinged wooden panels altarpiece) in the naming demonstrates an interest in the artistic conventions of religion.
Why did Warhol paint soup cans, Coke bottles, Brillo boxes and the like? It’s widely believed his background as a commercial artist gave him an innate appreciation for the artistry of objects found in cupboards and pantries all across America. Combined with his personal experiences as the child of immigrants, these tinned soups represented an easy American convenience. A convenient meal for families to enjoy around the dining table after working all day.
Contrary to some contemporary beliefs, Warhol wasn’t critiquing consumerism or pointing an accusing finger at mass consumption. To him, in his lifetime, consumerism and mass production was a good thing worthy of honour. His art is a celebration, maybe even a deification and worship, of the commercial powers that transform lives for the better.
Andy Warhol’s Big Campbell’s Soup Can, 19¢ (Beef Noodle) is perhaps his most personal screen print, revealing his spirituality, his love of Americana and his personal experiences, enjoying soup at the kitchen table with his brothers, mother and father.
November 2, 2022
Andy Warhol, App Art