In the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, 32 silkscreened canvases, each 20 inches high and 16 inches wide, hang on a wall in four rows of eight. Each canvas is a depiction of a Campbell’s soup can.
That multiple-canvas work by pop artist Andy Warhol is now 50 years old. First exhibited in a Los Angeles gallery in 1962, it was a dud – at first. But it was so outrageous, the dud soon became a bomb that exploded in the faces of critics, fellow artists and the general public.
“What IS this crap?!” was a typical reaction.
“Well, duh, anybody can paint a picture of a Campbell’s soup can,” some said. “Gimme a break – how dumb!”
Yes, anybody can. But nobody did. Except Andy Warhol.
Silkscreening, for those who don’t know, is a method of gluing stencils onto a stretched piece of silk fabric and then pressing paint through the silk “screen” onto a canvas beneath it. Warhol was an absolute master of the technique.
Warhol, famous for saying, “In the future, everybody will be famous for 15 minutes,” is still famous after all these years. Some still scorn his “pop art,” but few can deny its peculiar power, and that power includes, at times, a kind of goofy in-your-face impact. Warhol was a brilliant odd-ball fascinated by boredom, monotony, fame, money and the glitzy world of surface shine.
Why soup cans? Warhol changed his answers to suit his mood of the moment, but many who knew him best said he liked eating Campbell’s soup ever since he was a lonely, sickly, poor kid growing up in Pittsburgh. Seeing the cans in the daily landscape of his life inspired him to do the paintings.
Warhol was one of the first and probably the best artist to create purposely “flat” art works utterly devoid of emotion, of metaphors, of social meanings. He stared blankly at his subjects and they stared back, blankly. Flat. Blatant. Just “there.” That’s why so many viewers hated his paintings and why some still do. They consider them nothing but attention-grabbing put-ons.
There are critics who claim Warhol was poking fun at commercialism, mass production the superficiality of a consumer society. Yes, one can view his works through that lens, but Warhol himself, with his elfin giggle, was amused and denied any “deep” interpretations.
His other works included silkscreen multiple images of dollar bills, Brillo soap boxes and many ongoing versions of Campbell’s cans, including a stunning series of cans done in inky-acid colors. To commemorate the 50th anniversary of Warhol’s first Campbell’s silkscreens, the Campbell’s Soup Co. recently released a collector’s set of actual soup cans with labels printed in those Warholian colors. They’re available at Target grocery stores.
Warhol is also know for his staggeringly original silkscreen multiples of celebrities like Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley and Jacqueline Kennedy. One of his greatest works is a large gray-silvery silkscreen of an electric chair, part of his “Disaster” series of disturbing images from news photographs. Many may be familiar with the “tongue” image Warhol created as a logo for the Rolling Stones. Through those works that helped define and shape our modern world, Warhol guaranteed his fame would last well into the 21st Century and quite possibly beyond.
The iconic Warhol soup can is one of those topics I have argued about for decades, like the topics of “Is Picasso a great painter or a crazy doodler?” or “Is Bob Dylan a good or bad singer?”
My answers to the last two are a resounding “Yes!” Picasso was a great painter; Dylan is not only a good – but a great – expressive singer.
And Warhol, in my opinion, was a dazzling graphic artist, one of the most original and influential artists of all time. His best works, including the soup cans, have that aura of “artistic immortality” about them.