Why soup cans? Still no definitive answer for Warhol's choice

Fifty years ago on Monday, Andy Warhol debuted his paintings of Campbell's Soup cans. It was his first solo show, and it took place in Los Angeles at The Ferus Gallery, which displayed all 32 of the paintings -- one of each variety that the food company manufactured.

The small canvases were mounted on wall shelves so that the gallery resembled a grocery store.

Los Angeles had not been Warhol's preferred location for his first show, but the art-world newcomer from Pittsburgh hadn't distinguished himself at the time and no New York venue was interested. Art dealer Irving Blum talked him into showing in L.A. because of all the celebrities who lived there.

The exhibit opened on July 9, 1962, ushering in the Pop Art era that also featured the likes of Roy Lichtenstein, Claes Oldenberg and Robert Rauchenberg.

The show was highly controversial, even ridiculed. But soon it became clear that Warhol, the former commercial illustrator, had tapped into a powerful current. His iconic work has outlasted its critics -- the original series has been in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City since 1996, a partial gift from Blum. The canvases are now showing at the Art Gallery of Western Australia in Perth, but are scheduled to go back on view at MoMA in 2013.

And last year, the series made its only return trip to Los Angeles for a show at the Museum of Contemporary Art.

What remains unclear is the origin of Warhol's inspiration. Why soup cans? Why not, say, baby food jars, milk bottles or tobacco tins?

Various theories have circulated.

One notes that Warhol had been painting comic strip panels similar to those of Lichtenstein, but that the latter was getting gallery shows in New York whereas Warhol was not. Then the interior designer and art dealer Muriel Latow in New York suggested he switch to soup cans to differentiate himself from Lichtenstein. Warhol loved the idea -- one version says he paid her $50 for it -- and the next day he went out and bought a case of soup.

Christopher Knight, art critic for the L.A. Times, speculated in an article last year that Warhol picked up the idea from Willem deKooning, the abstract expressionist painter, who referred to his work as "soup." The word, Mr. Knight wrote, was "essential studio slang, the conversational lingo among New York School painters when they talked about their work."

Arnold Chanin, a family doctor in El Segundo, Calif., sent another idea in a letter to the Post-Gazette. Dr. Chanin, who grew up four years behind Warhol on the same street (Dawson, in south Oakland) and had the same art teachers at Schenley High School and Carnegie Tech, said that neighborhood kids loved to play in Panther Hollow, taking cans of soup to heat on a small Sterno stove for lunch. The labels, only lightly attached to the cans, would come off and litter the ground. So when their art teachers had them bring in found objects for collages and paintings, soup labels would have been plentiful material.

Another idea was that Warhol's mother, Julia Warhola, fed him soup every day for 20 years, imprinting the image in her son's mind.

Eric Shiner, director of the Andy Warhol Museum on the North Side, has heard many of the theories.

"There are so many urban legends about the way Andy Warhol got the idea to do soup cans," Mr. Shiner said.

"There's no definitive answer, but certainly there were a lot of things in the air that brought him to do them."

One soup can influence that recently came to light is a sketch by Julia Warhola.

Years before her artist son turned those commercial products into Pop Art, Julia Warhola made an ink-on-paper sketch of Campbell's Soup with a handwritten message: "Campbell's Soup very gut," meaning good.

The drawing sat in Warhol's private collection until after his death, when it was discovered by archivists at the Warhol Museum on the North Side. It had never been exhibited or even photographed until now.

Last Monday, the museum installed Julia's drawing for public viewing in the first-floor orientation gallery, where it will remain at least until the end of July. (The image that accompanies this story was photographed by the museum specifically for this article and also is making its public debut.)

Julia's work, titled "Two Campbell's Soup Cans and Two Cats," measures 131/2 inches by 225/8 inches. It is dated 1952 -- nine years before Warhol began painting soup cans and a decade before he showed them in Los Angeles.

"She beat him to the punch," Mr. Shiner said.

"But that's not the answer either," he continued. "All these things coming together, I think, made it a prime subject matter for Warhol to portray."

Campbell's Soup, with its simple red and white design and medallion in the center, was one of the most instantly recognizable commercial products in America, he said.

"He was a commercial illustrator, so he knew that simplicity and instant branding are so important to get consumers to buy. That's something he was incredibly good at, getting consumers to buy something."

Warhol would go on to produce many more soup cans that wound up in collections around the world. There were multicolor variations in pastels, and even a redesign of dried soup mix.

"He returned to the subject several times over the course of his career," said Mr. Shiner. "It's hard to say how many he made, he was so prodigious, but if you include the limited edition prints from the late 1960s, there are definitely hundreds and hundreds of those images out there in the world."

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Sally Kalson can be reached at skalson@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1610. First Published July 8, 2012 4:00 AM


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