Warhol's Bridge Into Pop Art

Eric McCauley

Writer’s comment: When I discovered Andy Warhol’s 200 Campbell’s Soup Cans, I was surprised to find out that he had painted it by hand and had not merely cranked it out mechanically. This fact led me to question Warhol’s relationship with past art historical movements, and by the time Art History 186 was offered, I knew I wanted to try to figure out more about this painting and its place in the art historical canon.
         I see this very small paper as an introduction to something much more encompassing, a larger work that would take politics, the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights movement, the art scene in New York City, and Warhol’s own very interesting personal history into consideration.
         My thanks go to Eric Schroeder and Blake Stimson for their encouragement and availability outside the classroom and also to Scott Brennan-Smith, graduate student in Art History and TA for AHI 186.
—Eric McCauley

Instructor’s comment: Eric McCauley’s essay, “Warhol’s Bridge into Pop Art,” takes up a key juncture in the history of modern art. Conceived most grandly, that juncture was a primary turning point from the modern to the postmodern, from the idea of an autonomous art that spoke of its own truths from a special preserve substantially separate from the immediate pressures of the marketplace to the idea of an art that could barely hold on to any sense of a distinctive mission amid the ever expanding domain of mass visual culture. Eric’s essay takes up all the ambivalence of this change by, among other means, pointing to a characteristic comment by Warhol: “A Coke is a Coke and no amount of money can get you a better Coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking.” Here, the democratic pretense of capitalism collides head on with art’s own pretense to represent a special truth. This is the “bridge” in Eric’s title, and the “selflessness” he refers to in Warhol’s aesthetic speaks not only to some personal condition of Warhol himself but to the emerging selflessness or professional identity crisis of visual art as an institution in the last fifty years.
—Blake Stimson, Art History Department

Andy Warhol created 200 Campbell’s Soup Cans (synthetic polymer paint on canvas, 1962) at the beginning of what eventually became a long line of mass-produced images, yet it stands out because it was done entirely by hand. In creating 200 Campbell’s Soup Cans, Warhol presented his audience with a rather banal image—ubiquitous cans of soup—presented in a grid of ten rows and twenty columns that leaves the borders of the 72- by 100-inch canvas and goes on indefinitely. This painting is one of the ultimate examples that links Abstract Expressionism to Pop Art in the United States because it is representational, yet also retains traces of the painterly tradition.
         Warhol worked in a matrix where the idea of producing popular images had been germinating for several years. Prior to his huge commercial success as a mass production silk-screener, Warhol wanted to be taken as seriously as artists he already knew, especially Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. Rauschenberg and Johns took Abstract Expressionist techniques and applied them to common, everyday images, many of them objects that the Abstract Expressionists intentionally tried not to notice (Stokstad 1130). Johns, in particular, used several objects that a general audience would be familiar with: the American flag, targets, maps, numerals, and letters of the alphabet. In 1960 Warhol began painting a series of pictures based on advertisements and images from comic strips, and with the precedent set by Johns, he capitalized on creating objects that were just as recognizable to the American public as Johns’s (Tomkins 45).
         While making pictures of Popeye, Superman, The Little King, and Dick Tracy, Warhol also painted two different versions of a Coca-Cola bottle: one representational and very true-to-life, the other with errant brushwork and dripped paint on the canvas, indicative of Abstract Expressionism. When Warhol asked a close friend and confidant, Emile de Antonio, which version he preferred, De Antonio unequivocally said he liked the “unadorned one” (Tomkins 45).
         One evening, when Warhol was thinking of what subject matter to use next, his friend Muriel Latow suggested using the Campbell’s soup can as an artistic image. She told him he should paint something that would not be noticed because it was already so familiar to the general public (Tomkins 47). In addition to being banal and innocuous, the soup can motif was also representative of American values, something that would be recognized by the old, young, rich, or poor. Warhol once made a similar analogy with regards to Coca-Cola, noting that the richest consumers in the United States often bought the same things as the poorest: “A Coke is a Coke and no amount of money can get you a better Coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking” (Warhol 100). At their most basic, the soup cans were a repetition of the same image and a conspicuous allusion to the manner in which the object appeared in everyday life. This reference also evoked the advertising business (in which Warhol worked) and how it generated its images for public consumption. In black and white terms, the intended audience of Warhol’s art is summed up in this analogy comparing Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art: if Abstract Expressionism was painting solely intended for painters, then Pop Art was painting intended for the masses (Stimson, AHI 186 lecture).
         For the most part, the initial reaction to Warhol’s 200 Campbell’s Soup Cans and other paintings of his that featured single soup cans was not positive. After Warhol took the time to create thirty-two hand-painted copies of a lone Campbell’s soup can in early 1962, Irving Blum saw them in New York and agreed to show them in July at his Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles. The show was ridiculed; for instance, the art gallery next door displayed real Campbell’s soup cans for twenty-nine cents apiece. Blum sold only six of the thirty-two paintings. However, later that summer Warhol was able to get into the Stable Gallery in New York City because one of its older artists decided to leave. In November, Warhol’s work exhibited at the Stable and also at Sidney Janis’s gallery, and both shows caused a sensation and were widely reported in the press. A symposium in December at the Metropolitan Museum of Art helped to critically confirm the idea that Pop was meaningful and important, contrasting the original reactions to Warhol’s soup cans when they were exhibited in Los Angeles earlier in the year (Tomkins 47).
         Beginning in August of 1962, soon after Marilyn Monroe’s death, Warhol made his paintings almost exclusively by silk-screening photographic images onto backgrounds, and his work expanded upon his seeming lack of self. When 200 Campbell’s Soup Cans is compared to his Peach Halves of 1960, the differences are very apparent: Warhol’s early Pop work clearly evokes Abstract Expressionism with its palette and “wispy line drawing,” and it is clear the composition was done intentionally and by hand (Duncan 89). In contrast, although 200 Campbell’s Soup Cans has little in the way of abstraction compared to Peach Halves, it too was done by hand, and therein lays its power: it is a work that, unless the viewer knew exactly how it was made, could be interpreted as either handmade or mechanically printed. The painting’s recurring image is definitely associated with Pop Art, yet the movement Pop reacted against—Abstract Expressionism—is also a part of the larger equation and relationship between the two very different styles (Duncan 86).
         If Warhol truly became selfless in his work, his 200 Campbell’s Soup Cans helps to illustrate the break between his hand in the work itself and the subsequent lack of it when he turned to mass production via the silk-screening process. Warhol’s relationship to and connection with Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art evolved from Peach Halves, then 200 Campbell’s Soup Cans, and continued with the production methods employed at the Factory. More importantly, this dialogue not only connected him to both styles, but also illustrated his transition from rendering commonplace objects in a painterly style to the mass-produced images that were devoid of his hand and self.

Works Cited

Duncan, Michael. “Painterly Pop.” Art in America 81.7 (July 1993): 86-89, 117.

Stimson, Blake. AHI 186 lecture, University of California, Davis, April 23, 2001.

Stoktad, Marilyn. Art History. Rev. ed. New York: Abrams, 1999.

Tomkins, Calvin. The Scene: Reports on Post-Modern Art. New York: Viking, 1976.

Warhol, Andy. The Philosophy of Andy Warhol: From A to B and Back Again. New York: Harcourt, 1975.

Selected Bibliography

Crow, Thomas. The Rise of the Sixties: American and European Art in the Era of Dissent. New York: Abrams, 1996.

Stiles, Kristine, and Peter Selz, eds. Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art: A Sourcebook of Artists’ Writings. Berkeley: U of California P, 1996.

Trétiack, Philippe. Warhol’s America. Trans. Ruth Taylor. London: Thames and Hudson, 1997.

Warhol, Andy, and Pat Hackett. POPism: The Warhol ‘60s. New York: Harcourt, 1980.