When Warhol first exhibited Campbell’s Soup Cans, in 1962, each of the thirty-two canvases rested on a shelf mounted on the wall, like groceries in a store. The number of paintings corresponds to the varieties of soup then sold by the Campbell Soup Company. Warhol assigned a different soup variety to each, checking them off on a product list supplied by Campbell once their “portraits” were completed.
Gallery label from On to Pop, September 29, 2010-April 25, 2011
When Warhol first exhibited these thirty-two canvases in 1962, each one simultaneously hung from the wall like a painting and rested on a shelf like groceries in a store. The number of canvases corresponds to the varieties of soup then sold by the Campbell Soup Company. Warhol assigned a different flavor to each painting, referring to a product list supplied by Campbell's. There is no evidence that Warhol envisioned the canvases in a particular sequence. Here, they are arranged in rows that reflect the chronological order in which they were introduced, beginning with "Tomato" in the upper left, which debuted in 1897.
Gallery label from 2006
"I don't think art should be only for the select few," Warhol believed, "I think it should be for the mass of the American people." Like other Pop artists, Warhol used images of already proven appeal to huge audiences: comic strips, ads, photographs of rock-music and movie stars, tabloid news shots. In Campbell's Soup Cans he reproduced an object of mass consumption in the most literal sense. When he first exhibited these canvases—there are thirty-two of them, the number of soup varieties Campbell's then sold—each one simultaneously hung from the wall, like a painting, and stood on a shelf, like groceries in a store.
Repeating the same image at the same scale, the canvases stress the uniformity and ubiquity of the Campbell's can. At the same time, they subvert the idea of painting as a medium of invention and originality. Visual repetition of this kind had long been used by advertisers to drum product names into the public consciousness; here, though, it implies not energetic competition but a complacent abundance. Outside an art gallery, the Campbell's label, which had not changed in over fifty years, was not an attention-grabber but a banality. As Warhol said of Campbell's soup, "I used to drink it. I used to have the same lunch every day, for twenty years, I guess, the same thing over and over again."
Publication excerpt from The Museum of Modern Art, MoMA Highlights, New York: The Museum of Modern Art, revised 2004, originally published 1999, p. 260