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Critic's Notebook: Was Andy Warhol's 'Campbell's Soup Cans' inspired by Willem de Kooning?

As the Pop art work goes on display at MOCA, the question resurfaces: 'Why soup?' The answer may be traced to the Abstract Expressionist.

July 10, 2011|By Christopher Knight, Los Angeles Times Art Critic
  • 'Campbell's Soup Cans': Andy Warhol's series was first displayed publicly at the Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles in July 1962. It's back in L.A. for a visit at MOCA.
'Campbell's Soup Cans': Andy Warhol's series was… (Digital Image / The Museum…)

Why did Andy Warhol paint pictures of Campbell's soup cans?

Why not, say, cans of Chef Boyardee ravioli? Or B&M baked beans? Why not Alpo, one of the first commercially available canned dog foods? Alpo was manufactured in Allentown, Pa., across the state from Pittsburgh, Warhol's hometown.

Supermarkets stocked lots of canned goods, circa 1960. Any one of them could have signified the ubiquity of commercial imagery in contemporary American life. Any one of them could epitomize modern mass production at its most banal. Those are the usual reasons given for Warhol's full-bore move into Pop imagery, which began in 1961-62 with "Campbell's Soup Cans."

This weekend marks the 49th anniversary of their controversial public debut. Warhol's renowned suite of 32 small canvases was shown for the first time at a Los Angeles gallery, the only gallery willing to take a chance on the virtually unknown New York artist. The mundane commercial subject matter bewildered an art world more used to avant-garde abstraction, not to mention a public already skeptical of Modern art. Bemused, a neighboring gallery stacked a pyramid of actual soup cans in its window, along with a sign that boasted, "Get the real thing for only 29 cents a can."

Until now, the entire group apparently hasn't been on public view in L.A. since that landmark 1962 Ferus Gallery show. To observe the anniversary, the Museum of Contemporary Art has borrowed the "Campbell's Soup Cans" and installed them in its Grand Avenue building, where they will remain through Labor Day.

The suite of "Campbell's Soup Cans" is today a centerpiece in the permanent collection of New York's Museum of Modern Art. There, they illustrate an epochal shift away from the European-based abstraction that dominated the School of Paris before World War II as well as the 1950s New York School after. But the question remains: Why soup rather than any of the scores — or even hundreds — of other commercial products?

Remarkably, in the nearly half-century since Warhol painted his signature work, there has been no satisfactory answer. MOMA's wall label claims that the surprising subject is easy to explain: Warhol said that for 20 years he ate Campbell's soup every day for lunch. But frankly, if you buy that, you might also be in the market to acquire a bridge down in Brooklyn.

Others have been credited with suggesting the subject to him, most notably interior designer Muriel Latow. Maybe so. What matters, though, isn't who got the idea. What matters is Warhol's decision that the subject was worth painting.

I have a different answer to the question "Why soup?" — one that I don't believe has been proposed before now. It takes some explaining. But the short answer is this: Soup was essential studio slang, the conversational lingo among New York School painters when they talked about their work.

Specifically, soup was the metaphor used by Willem de Kooning — the most successful artist of the era — to characterize his robust Abstract Expressionism. If soup worked for him, why not for Warhol?

A 'Sketchbook' start

De Kooning candidly describes his art's aesthetic linchpin in "Sketchbook No. 1: Three Americans," a 1960 movie by the Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker Robert Snyder. (Igor Stravinsky and Buckminster Fuller were the other two Americans.) The film is rarely seen today; but as the camera rolls, the word tumbles straight out of the expatriate Dutchman's mouth. Soup, the artist says, is what he always painted.

In the movie, De Kooning is dapper in a checked sport coat and no tie. He is seated at a large round table in his studio, among a group of fellow artists and critics. Landscape-related gestural abstractions lean against the wall behind him, including 1957's "Parc Rosenberg," a large canvas dominated by an energetically brushed cobalt-blue shape colliding with passages of black, brown, white and chrome-yellow. The room is dark. The artists and writers are spotlighted by the bright illumination necessary for filming. Half-empty liquor bottles and coffee cups litter the table, while curls of cigarette smoke drift through the air.

The cinematic setup is obviously meant to recall legendary nights spent drinking coffee and talking about art at "The Club," the informal Eighth Street loft shared by a then-impoverished group of New York artists, or perhaps carousing at the blue-collar Cedar Tavern, the downtown painters' hangout on nearby University Place. The Cedar is where De Kooning and Jackson Pollock, the two most celebrated Abstract Expressionists, once famously fell out into the street in a playful, drunken argument over which one was the greatest living American artist. The filmed conversation, peppered with insider jokes and full of knowing glances among intimates, covers aesthetic territory no doubt well rehearsed on many evenings fueled by caffeine or Scotch.

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