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  When Andy Warhol started painting Campbell's soup cans in 1962, the company sent lawyers along to investigate. Little did they know, then, what an effect the paintings would have on their sales, as a new movement in art, Pop Art, was born; and all the experts could do was watch with bemusement and astonishment, as Andy signed soup cans and sold them as souvenirs.

For the early paintings Andy used the red and white of the original cans - but later he incorporated a wide variety of arbitrary colours.

In July 1992, Irving Blum's Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles showed a series of the Soup Can paintings together for the first time, an exhibition that was to herald the arrival of Pop Art to the west coast. Until that time a few of the paintings had been scattered around various New York galleries - but there had been no formal exhibition in New York. This followed later that year at the Stable Gallery.

In 1997, the Campbell Soup Company, who had by now acknowledged the importance of the paintings, sponsored the 'Art of Soup' contest, which marked the 100th birthday of Campbell's soup and the 35th anniversary of Warhol's homage to it. The winning design was a sheet of commemorative postage stamps, each one depicting a different flavour of Campbell's soup submitted by New Jersey man, Dino Sistilli. He was presented with a cheque for $10,000 at the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh.

Andy Warhol began as a commercial illustrator, and a very successful one, doing jobs like shoe ads for I. Miller in a stylish blotty line that derived from Ben Shahn. He first exhibited in an art gallery in 1962, when the Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles showed his 32 Campbell's Soup Cans, 1961-62. From then on, most of Warhol's best work was done over a span of about six years, finishing in 1968, when he was shot. And it all flowed from one central insight: that in a culture glutted with information, where most people experience most things at second or third hand through TV and print, through images that become banal and disassociated by repeated again and again and again, there is role for affectless art. 

You no longer need to be hot and full of feeling. You can be supercool, like a slightly frosted mirror. Not that Warhol worked this out; he didn't have to. He felt it and embodied it. He was a conduit for a sort of collective American state of mind in which celebrity - the famous image of a person, the famous brand name - had completely replaced both sacredness and solidity. Earlier artists, like Monet, had painted the same motif in series in order to display minute discriminations of perception, the shift of light and color form hour to hour on a haystack, and how these could be recorded by the subtlety of eye and hand. 

Warhol's thirty-two soup cans are about nothing of the kind. They are about sameness (though with different labels): same brand, same size, same paint surface, same fame as product. They mimic the condition of mass advertising, out of which his sensibility had grown. They are much more deadpan than the object which may have partly inspired them, Jasper Johns's pair of bronze Ballantine ale cans. This affectlessness, this fascinated and yet indifferent take on the object, became the key to Warhol's work; it is there in the repetition of stars' faces (Liz, Jackie, Marilyn, Marlon, and the rest), and as a record of the condition of being an uninvolved spectator it speaks eloquently about the condition of image overload in a media saturated culture. Warhol extended it by using silk screen, and not bothering to clean up the imperfections of the print: those slips of the screen, uneven inkings of the roller, and general graininess. What they suggested was not the humanizing touch of the hand but the pervasiveness of routine error and of entropy.

From "American Visions", by Robert Hughes

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Pop Box


 Various people have taken credit for suggesting to Andy Warhol that he paint soup cans, according to Gary Comenas at The least believeable is Ultra Violet's account. Ultra says that she ran into the yet to be famous Warhol in 1961 at a luncheonette on 88th and Madison where he was sitting at the counter eating chicken soup. When she asked him what he did, he said he painted. She asked him what he painted and Warhol supposedly responded, "Not much. I'm looking for ideas." Pointing to the Campbell soup cans on a shelf, she supposedly said: "Why don't you paint a soup can," to which Andy responded, "hmm...."

The problem with Ultra Violet's "personal" recollections is that they often seem be based on other people's published accounts of the era. Warhol did not spend much time with Ultra and she was never really a part of the druggy culture of the Factory regulars as she did not take drugs, herself.

According to Ted Carey (who was one of Andy Warhol's commercial art assistants from approximately 1957 through the early 1960s), it was Muriel Latow who suggested the idea for both the soup cans and Warhol's early dollar paintings.

Muriel was an interior decorator with higher aspirations who had an art gallery (the Latow Gallery) in the East 60s. She told Warhol he should paint "Something you see every day and something that everybody would recognize. Something like a can of Campbell's Soup." Ted Carey, who was there at the time, said that Warhol responded, "Oh that sounds fabulous." According to Carey, Warhol went out to the supermarket the following day and bought a case of "all the soups", which Carey saw when he stopped by Warhol's apartment the next day.

Another assistant, Vito Giallo, who worked for Warhol in 1958/59, remembers that Warhol always had soup for lunch - "tomato soup was his favourite" - which Warhol would eat "watching TV at the same time... His [Warhol's] mother was there to make soup and a sandwich. Lettuce, tomato sandwiches, very simple."

Gerard Malanga would go over to Andy's house for lunch during the early days of assisting Warhol in the firehouse they had rented as a studio. He does not mention soup in his description of lunch at Andy's home: "After work was completed, we would go over to Andy's house. The firehouse was three blocks from where Andy lived with Julia, his mother... She would make lunch for us, which usually consisted of a Czechoslovak-style hamburger stuffed with diced onion, sprinkled with parsley, and always on white bread, and with a 7-Up on ice."

The idea of the soup cans may have just been a natural extension of the fact that Andy lived in poverty as a child and they would often eat soup because it was economical.