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.
Before Romare Bearden turned to the medium of collage in 1964—the multilayered compositions, for which he is best known—he was steeped in the language of drawing and painting. The Visitation (1941) (now on view in the exhibition One-Way Ticket: Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series and Other Visions of the Great Movement North) exemplifies a critical early moment in the development of an artist who would become a leading voice in the cultural life of Harlem and in the history of American art. Recently acquired by MoMA, The Visitation returns to the Museum’s galleries for the first time since the 1971 retrospective Romare Bearden: The Prevalence of Ritual. Read more
Scenes for a New Heritage: Contemporary Art from the Collection, a sweeping reinstallation of MoMA’s Contemporary Galleries, is a markedly cross-medium selection of works from the Museum’s collection. Created in the past three decades by more than 30 international artists, the works in the exhibition span a range of approaches that respond to the political, social, and cultural flux of our time.
Situated prominently in one of the final galleries, and on view at MoMA for the first time, Mark Bradford’s set of untitled 2012 etchings leave an unexpected mark—both literally and figuratively. Read more
Jean Dubuffet (French, 1901–1985) dedicated years to exploring and recording the natural textures he encountered in his daily life, from the mountainous, rocky landscapes of Vence and the sandy hills of El Goléa to dewy, foggy Parisian mornings or the stars far beyond our skies. Yet his most subtle and intricate depictions of surfaces may be a group of black-and-white ink-on-paper drawings created between 1958 and 1960. Read more
In conjunction with the exhibition The Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World, we invited several artists from the show to walk us through MoMA’s permanent collection galleries and discuss a few artworks. Revisiting key pieces in the Museum’s collection with these artists has truly given me a fresh perspective on the works themselves and their significance today. Read more
The artists featured in The Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World all draw inspiration from a dizzying array of art-historical styles and processes. Two years ago, in conjunction with the exhibition Inventing Abstraction, 1910–1925, MoMA asked contemporary artists to discuss works in the show that they found compelling. We thought it might be fun and enlightening to revisit this approach and invite several artists from The Forever Now into the Museum’s collection galleries to see which works pique their interest. Read more
As the groundbreaking exhibition Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs enters its final weeks, visitors can rest assured that there’s more Matisse to discover at MoMA. Head to the fifth-floor Painting and Sculpture Galleries, where you’ll encounter an entire room devoted to Matisse’s early-20th-century work—an especially fertile period for this modern master—with an unexpected twist. Read more
In July of 1963 the French artist Jean Dubuffet (1901–1985) declared of his radical lithographs, “Sometimes I took imprints of every chance element that might even suggest something: the ground, walls, stones, old suitcases, any or every sort of object—I even went so far as to do them from the naked skin of a friend’s back—and sometimes I obtained astonishing images…that I had sprinkled with tiny elements such as wires, crumbs, bits of torn paper, and all sorts of debris….” Read more
In 1969 American composer Alvin Lucier first performed his landmark work I Am Sitting in a Room, conceived for voice and electromagnetic tape. Lucier read a text into a microphone. Attempting to smooth out his stutter, he began with the lines, “I am sitting in a room, the same one you are in now. I am recording the sound of my speaking voice.” As described in the text, his voice was recorded, then played back into the room. This process was repeated, and with each iteration Lucier’s recorded speech grew muddled, sounding distant, and specific sonic frequencies started to dominate the recorded sound. Read more