Andy Warhol’s Art Explained: What Makes His Iconic Campbell’s Soup Cans & Marilyn Monroe Diptych Art?

Pop Art looks out into the world. It does­n’t look like a paint­ing of some­thing, it looks like the thing itself. — Artist Roy Licht­en­stein

By 2021, most of us accept that Andy Warhol’s Camp­bel­l’s Soup Cans are art, but there are some who are still not con­fi­dent as to why.

No shame in that.

Art His­to­ri­an Steven Zuck­er and the Khan Academy’s Sal Khan tack­le the ques­tion head on in the below video, con­clud­ing that the work is not only a reflec­tion of the time in which it was cre­at­ed, but that the enor­mi­ty of its impact was made pos­si­ble by that tim­ing.

Forty-five years before Warhol escort­ed those low­ly, instant­ly rec­og­niz­able soup cans from the super­mar­ket to the far lofti­er realm of muse­um and gallery, the art world was thrown into an uproar over Mar­cel Duchamp’s provoca­tive ready­made, Foun­tain, a pre­fab­ri­cat­ed uri­nal sub­mit­ted to the Soci­ety of Inde­pen­dent Artists inau­gur­al exhi­bi­tion as the work of the fic­ti­tious R. Mutt. The Tate Modern’s web­site sum­ma­rizes its impor­tance:

Foun­tain test­ed beliefs about art and the role of taste in the art world. Inter­viewed in 1964, Duchamp said he had cho­sen a uri­nal in part because he thought it had the least chance of being liked (although many at the time did find it aes­thet­i­cal­ly pleas­ing). He con­tin­ued: ‘I was draw­ing people’s atten­tion to the fact that art is a mirage. A mirage, exact­ly like an oasis appears in the desert. It is very beau­ti­ful until, of course, you are dying of thirst. But you don’t die in the field of art. The mirage is sol­id.’

Campbell’s soup cans pos­sess a sim­i­lar solid­i­ty.

The famil­iar label dates back to 1898 when a Campbell’s exec drew inspi­ra­tion from Cor­nell Uni­ver­si­ty’s red and white foot­ball uni­forms.

A full page mag­a­zine ad from 1934 intro­duces Cream of Mush­room and Noo­dle with Chick­en (soon to become Chick­en Noo­dle) by remind­ing read­ers to “Look for the Red-and-White Label.”

By 1962, Campbell’s had giv­en con­sumers their pick of 32 fla­vors, and Warhol paint­ed all 32 of them. Not the con­tents. Just those uni­form cans.

Los Ange­les’ Ferus Gallery sold five of them before gal­lerist Irv­ing Blum real­ized that their impact was great­est when all 32 were dis­played togeth­er, to echo how con­sumers were used to see­ing the real thing.

Warhol had a per­son­al con­nec­tion to his sub­ject mat­ter, but it wasn’t like he set out to rep a life­long favorite. Rather, he was fol­low­ing up on a friend’s sug­ges­tion to paint some­thing every­one would would rec­og­nize, with or with­out pas­sion­ate feel­ings. (He seemed to be with­out:)

I used to drink it. I used to have the same lunch every day, for 20 years, I guess, the same thing over and over again.

Warhol brought a suc­cess­ful com­mer­cial illus­tra­tor’s eye to his Campell’s Soup Cans, cap­i­tal­iz­ing on the public’s exist­ing knowl­edge. The col­ors, the cus­tom cur­sive logo over the sans serif fla­vor font, and the shape of the cans had couched them­selves in the ear­ly-60s Amer­i­can con­scious­ness.

As had indus­tri­al­iza­tion as the over­ar­ch­ing sys­tem by which most lives were ordered. The artist may not have offered overt com­ment on mass pro­duced items, con­ve­nience foods, or brand loy­al­ty. He just depend­ed on the pub­lic to be so inti­mate­ly acquaint­ed with them, they had fad­ed into the wall­pa­per of their dai­ly lives.

Nor was the pub­lic over­ly accus­tomed to every­day objects recon­cep­tu­al­ized as art. These days, we’re a bit blasé.

Warhol’s sub­ject mat­ter may have been pro­sa­ic, but his tim­ing, Khan and Zuck­er tell us, could not have been bet­ter.

As Campbell’s is to soup, Mar­i­lyn Mon­roe is to celebri­ty — an endur­ing house­hold name. Her sexy, youth­ful image is imprint­ed on fans born decades after her death.

The most uni­ver­sal Mar­i­lyn is the one from the Nia­gara pub­lic­i­ty still, immor­tal­ized in acrylic and silkscreen in Warhol’s Mar­i­lyn Dip­tych. One of his most defin­ing works, it was pro­duced the same year as his soup cans (and Monroe’s sui­cide at the age of 36).

In con­sid­er­ing this work for his ongo­ing series, Great Art Explained, gal­lerist James Payne delves into Warhol’s fas­ci­na­tion with mul­ti­ples, celebri­ty, reli­gious iconog­ra­phy, machi­na­tion, and death, not­ing that “both Warhol and Mar­i­lyn under­stood trans­for­ma­tion”:

From ear­ly on in his career, Andy Warhol had an extra­or­di­nary abil­i­ty of find­ing the sacred in the pro­fane.… He was a prod­uct of the East­ern Euro­pean immi­grant expe­ri­ence who him­self became an icon, a shy, gay, work­ing class man who became the court painter of the 1970s, an artist who embraced con­sumerism,  celebri­ty and the coun­ter­cul­ture and changed mod­ern art in the process.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

Andy Warhol Demys­ti­fied: Four Videos Explain His Ground­break­ing Art and Its Cul­tur­al Impact

Andy Warhol Explains Why He Decid­ed to Give Up Paint­ing & Man­age the Vel­vet Under­ground Instead (1966)

Take a Vir­tu­al Tour of the Andy Warhol Exhi­bi­tion at the Tate Mod­ern

Ayun Hal­l­i­day is an author, the­ater­mak­er, and Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday

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