The 32 canvases that make up Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Cans, a landmark in MoMA’s collection, are usually shown in a grid arranged in four rows of eight. For space reasons, this has typically been the most expedient way to exhibit them.
But in the Museum’s current exhibition, Andy Warhol: Campbell’s Soup Cans and Other Works, 1953–1967, for the first time at MoMA, and only the fourth time anywhere, they are being presented in a single line. Also for this occasion, the outer frames and Plexiglas barriers that usually cover the canvases have been removed, and the works have been propped on ledges. The paintings can be perused like groceries lining supermarket shelves.
This presentation transforms our perception of the iconic series. When installed in a grid, the canvases can all be seen from a single vantage point. They become a tight unit of seemingly identical images that the eye takes in at once, like wallpaper. But when they are all in a single line at eye-level, wrapping around the gallery walls, it seems as if they could extend almost endlessly, and we are invited to slowly consider the paintings one by one. As we look, unexpected inconsistencies among these hand-painted canvases begin to emerge: the red paint sometimes feels closer to orange, there are variations in the black shadows on the silver tops, one soup can is missing a gold band, the fleur-de-lis stamped on the bottom of each varies…
This installation of Campbell’s Soup Cans was designed to recall the first time they were ever exhibited at the Ferus Gallery, Los Angeles, in 1962. Focusing on artists primarily from New York and Los Angeles, Ferus mounted a number of significant exhibitions in the 1960s, including the 1962 Soup Cans exhibition, which was Warhol’s first solo exhibition of paintings and is also considered the first Pop art exhibition on the west coast.
Ferus director Irving Blum offered the show to Warhol, who was still relatively unknown as a painter, after he first saw six soup-can canvases in 1961 while visiting Warhol’s apartment on Lexington Avenue that doubled as a studio. (Blum went to see Warhol on the suggestion of Ivan Karp, associate director at the Leo Castelli gallery and an early and dedicated champion of Pop art). “…I walked down a corridor,” Blum later described, “and there were paintings of soup cans on the floor, leaning against the wall. I said, ‘Andy, what are those?’ He said, ‘Oh, I’m doing these now.’ And I said, ‘Why more than one?’… He said, ‘I’m going to do 32.’ I simply couldn’t believe it. I said, ‘Why 32?’ He said, ‘There are 32 varieties.’” (Interview with Peter M. Brant, Interview Magazine, April 19, 2012)
After Warhol completed the canvases and sent them to Los Angeles (he was not able to get to L.A. to see the show himself), Blum hung them and placed a ledge beneath them because he was having difficulty making the paintings appear level. Later, when asked about this installation, Blum said, “Cans sit on shelves. Why not?” (Interview Magazine, 2012)
During the run of the exhibition, Blum sold five of the paintings, mostly to his friends, including the actor Dennis Hopper. But before the show was over, he changed his mind—he felt they should remain in a group. Once he managed to reclaim the works, he paid Warhol $1,000 for them in installments over a year (Kirk Varnedoe in Heiner Bastian, Andy Warhol, 2001).
Blum hoped that eventually the paintings would find a home at a major museum, and in 1996, thanks to an initiative spearheaded by Kirk Varnedoe, former Chief Curator of Painting and Sculpture, the paintings were acquired by MoMA as a partial gift of Irving Blum, and a partial purchase.
The current exhibition presents the soup-can paintings together with a selection of works Warhol made in the years before and after he completed them, highlighting their pivotal position in the artist’s career. They were made during the moment when Warhol was trying to transform himself from a commercial artist to a fine artist, right before he became a beacon of Pop art in the 1960s. The Campbell’s Soup Cans canvases are among Warhol’s earliest paintings based on American consumer goods, and some of his first works that feature serial images.
The canvases are also are among his last hand-painted works. Soon after completing them, he discovered silkscreen, the medium with which he is most closely associated. Whereas the soup-can paintings had been handcrafted to look as though they were mechanically produced, silkscreen actually was a mechanical—and commercial—process. It enabled Warhol to make a practically limitless number of precise repetitions and variations of his key subjects.
He once explained his preference for silk-screening: “I find it easier to use a screen. This way, I don’t have to work on my objects at all. One of my assistants or anyone else, for that matter, can reproduce the design as well as I could” (Andy Warhol in Kaspar König, Andy Warhol, 1968).
Because we so often think of the Warhol who wanted to be a machine, rapidly turning out silkscreens, films, and photographs, it’s almost counterintuitive to think of him with brush in hand. Campbell’s Soup Cans holds a unique place in Warhol’s body of work: they are at once serial and singular, have a mechanical look, but were made manually, and in this exhibition—as they were at Ferus in 1962—they are both paintings on a wall, and cans on a shelf.