Most people interested in contemporary art know something about Warhol and are familiar with at least two of his most iconic images, Marilyn (painted right after her death in ’62) and his iconic soup can paintings.
In Blake Gopnik‘s definitive new biography, Warhol, much is unearthed about Andy that had remained either unknown or forgotten over the years. (He died 33 years ago. He’d be 92 today.) This soup story might just be the lynchpin of contemporary art in the second half of the 20th century…
Throughout 1961, Warhol witnessed shows and reviews piling up for friends and acquaintances—Philip Pearlstein, Larry Rivers, Alex Katz, Yves Klein, his old teacher Balcomb Greene, even Warhol’s schoolmate Gillian Jagger—while he remained an also-ran at best.
At the end of the year, Claes Oldenburg, another Pop pioneer, mounted The Store, a landmark installation where he sold papier-mâché copies of everyday merchandise. Warhol saw it and was so sick with jealousy that he skipped a friend’s dinner party. Roy Lichtenstein and James Rosenquist were starting to enjoy similar success with their paintings derived from comic books and billboards.
Warhol’s final breakthrough into ’60s Pop came through an accidental inspiration from a minor dealer on the New York scene named Muriel Latow.
She was a flamboyant decorator, three years younger than Warhol, and had hopes of becoming a serious art dealer. Latow has gone down in history as Pop Art’s most important, if accidental, muse. As the story is told—in one of its many, mostly incompatible versions—Latow went to a dinner at Warhol’s house in the fall of ’61 to console him for having been one-upped by Oldenburg and Lichtenstein and others.
“The cartoon paintings…it’s too late,” Warhol is supposed to have said. “I’ve got to do something that really will have a lot of impact, that will be different enough from Lichtenstein.”
He begged his guests for ideas, and Latow came up with one, but wouldn’t deliver until Warhol handed over a check for $50.
“You’ve got to find something that’s recognizable to almost everybody,” she said. “Something you see every day that everybody would recognize. Something like a can of Campbell’s Soup.”
The next day, Warhol—or his mother, in one telling—ran to the Finast supermarket across the street and bought every variety of Campbell’s Soup that it carried; he later checked this inventory for completeness against a list he got from the soupmaker.
The whole story sounds as apocryphal as most of the other origin stories connected to Warhol—except that one biographer claims to have seen the actual check Warhol wrote to Latow.
If Warhol wanted a “recognizable” product of certifiably popular culture to turn into fancy art, Campbell’s Soup seemed likely to beat even Superman and Popeye—and to get him out from under the shadow of Lichtenstein at the same time.
In Warhol’s commercial career, photography’s sheer ability to present us with stuff had doomed his stylish, hand-drawn illustrations. So Warhol took photography’s directness and turned it into fine art. He got his old boyfriend Ed Wallowitch, a skilled photographer, to give him shots of soup cans in every state: pristine and flattened, closed and opened, single and stacked. And then, for something like the following year, the front room at the top of his town house saw him meticulously hand-painting those products onto canvases of every size. His goal was to make his soup paintings look as plain and direct as he possibly could, as though the cans had leaped straight from the supermarket shelf, or the kitchen counter or trash, onto his canvases. But in fact he had to come up with all kinds of clever techniques to get that effect, cutting stencils to get his product’s labels just right and mixing oil- and water-based paints to capture the speckled look of a can’s tarnished tin. The sheer perfection of his tarnished metal shows Warhol, so busy pretending to cut all ties to craft and tradition, becoming the latest in an ancient line of trompe l’oeil painters, the most craft-obsessed and conservative of all Western artists.
Nevertheless, when Warhol told Leila Davies, an old college friend, about his brand-new Campbell’s paintings, she was distraught at the waste of the talents he’d acquired in art school:
“They just seemed like about as vacuous a statement as you could make as far as painting was concerned,” she said, echoing the feelings of his other ’50s friends. Warhol, however, was not to be discouraged:
“Oh it’s the latest thing, the latest thing!” he told her. “You just take something very ordinary, and this is going to be the end thing and it is just gonna take off like a rocket.”
He was right, it did—and in the process it exploded almost every notion of what art should be and what an artist should do.
If Picasso had radically altered the look of fine art, Warhol did him one better by challenging its fundamental nature and status: Was an artist who merely reproduced the fronts of soup cans descending to the level of a labelmaker—or, worse, of a mere copyist—or could appropriation, as an artistic gesture, trump any actual gesture an artist might make with hand and brush? Could a “serious” artist risk going down into the trenches of popular culture—as Warhol went on to do in his Silver Factory and then in two more decades of tabloid headlines—and have that descent count as a successful move in the chess game of high art?
Those questions still vex every artist today, from certified stars such as Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons to the latest art school graduates. Like it or not, Warhol’s silver wig still sits atop our culture.
From Blake Gopnik’s Warhol, published April 2020.
It’s #AndySunday on The Wow Report. Take a tour of Warhol’s massive exhibit at the Tate London and check out 60 Polaroids being auctioned by Christie’s with proceeds going to COVID relief for artists.
P.S. When Andy was around, you know where you could find him most Sundays? The 26th Street flea market. He was fixture. All the vendors knew him and you’d see him a lot.
(via The Smithsonian)