Andy Warhol Pre-Pop
by Gary Comenas
The first time that Warhol's large canvases of comic strip characters were exhibited publicly was in April 1961 as part of a window display at the Bonwit Teller department store. Ted Carey discovered afterwards that Roy Lichtenstein was doing similar work.
"... I can remember one Saturday afternoon going into Castelli [Gallery], and I was in looking at a show, and Ivan said, 'Oh, I've got something to show you...' so, we went into the closet and he pulled out this big Pop Art painting, and I can't remember what it was, but it was a cartoon-type painting. And I said, 'It looks like Andy Warhol.' and he said, 'No, it's Roy Lichtenstein.' And I said, 'Well it looks very much like some paintings that Andy is doing.' 'Yes, we've heard that Andy is doing some paintings like this,' he said, 'Leo would like to see them. So, tell Andy to give us a call.'"1
When Carey told Warhol of Lichtenstein's paintings, Warhol thought Lichtenstein was copying his ideas.
"... So, I went home and called Andy - no, I think, I went right over to Andy's house... and so, I said, 'Prepare yourself for a shock.' And he said, 'What?' I said, 'Castelli has a closet full of comic paintings.' And he said, 'You're kidding?!' And he said, 'Who did them?' And I said, 'Somebody by the name of Lichtenstein.' Well, Andy turned white. He said, 'Roy Lichtenstein.' He said, 'Roy Lichtenstein used to... ' - as I remember, he used to be a sign painter for Bonwit Teller, and here's where I'm a little bit confused because Andy... couldn't get anybody to show his early cartoon paintings, so he went to Gene Moore and Gene Moore said, 'Well I can put the paintings in the windows...' He put them in the 57th Street window... As I remember, the implication was: Andy felt that Lichtenstein had seen the paintings in the window and gave him the idea to do his paintings. Now, whether this is true or not, I don't know, but at this time, this is what Andy had felt."2
Although Warhol did do work for Gene Moore, it was not Moore who was responsible for the window display Carey mentions. According to the Andy Warhol Catalogue Raisonné, most of the Bonwit Teller window displays "were coordinated by the display director, Gene Moore, but this one was initiated and installed by Clinton Hamilton, who knew Warhol through Nathan Gluck." (RN469) Lichtenstein later denied that he had any knowledge of Warhol's comic strip paintings prior to doing his own:
"I saw Andy's work at Leo Castelli's about the same time I brought mine in, about the spring of 1961... Of course, I was amazed to see Andy's work because he was doing cartoons of Nancy and Dick Tracy and they were similar to mine."3
Although Lichtenstein maintains that he saw Warhol's paintings at Castelli's gallery in "about" the Spring of 1961, Castelli did not have any Warhol paintings at that time. The only place they had been exhibited was in April 1961 in the windows of Bonwit Teller. Lichtenstein implies that Castelli was stocking Warhol's work prior to his own, whereas Carey's comments indicate the opposite - and Carey's comments are supported by the recollections of both Leo Castelli and Ivan Karp. Although Lichtenstein had been using comic book imagery in his paintings since 1957, he did not do large canvases reproducing single comic strip panels featuring speech balloons until he painted Look Mickey in the summer of 19614 - months after he had, by his own admission, seen Warhol's canvases. Art writer Avis Berman notes in "The Transformations of Roy Lichtenstein: An oral history," an essay published in the exhibition catalogue for the 2003/2004 Lichtenstein retrospective - "Roy Lichtenstein: All About Art"), "From the accounts of witnesses, it seems clear that Look Mickey [1961; National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC], Lichtenstein's first surviving Pop painting, was executed in mid-to late June of 1961..."4b Warhol had been painting single comic strip panels featuring speech balloons since 1960 - a year earlier than Lichtenstein. It is possible that Lichtenstein, as Warhol suspected, had seen Warhol's paintings at Bonwit Teller, although Lichtenstein never mentioned it in interviews. In any case, Lichtenstein admitted having seen Warhol's cartoon paintings prior to doing his own single panel comic strip paintings featuring speech balloons (Look Mickey) and it is possible he was influenced by Warhol's work.
THE FERUS GALLERY
Although Warhol was the first to paint single comic strip panels with speech balloons, Lichtenstein was the first to get a gallery. Leo Castelli was unwilling to take on Warhol because he already had Lichtenstein. In the Autumn of 1961, Warhol was visited by Walter Hopps and Irving Blum of the Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles. Warhol had been recommended to Hopps by David Herbert who worked for another New York art dealer, Betty Parsons.
"By 1959 I had bought out my partner, Edward Kienholz, and taken over Ferus Gallery. I shopped around for another partner because I was supposed to still be going to UCLA. When Irving Blum came into Ferus Gallery, I gave him a third of the stock to act as its director. Then Billy Al Bengston had solo Ferus shows in 1960 and 1961... In 1960 in New York, I met a man named David Herbert who worked for Betty Parsons, then Sidney Janis... Herbert knew Andy Warhol, whom we had never heard of in California. Herbert said, 'You've got to meet this artist, Andy Warhol,' and this finally happened in the Fall of 1961. Herbert's friends hung out in this trendy Manhattan store called Serendipity. Herbert arranged the meeting there and finally Warhol showed up. Irving Blum and I went to Warhol's studio on Lexington Avenue in the Upper East Side."5
According to Hopps, he was so "blown away" by Warhol's paintings, that he immediately offered him a show in Los Angeles. However, his account of the visit does not tally with accounts that Blum has given about "discovering" Warhol. Blum does not mention the presence of Hopps and asserts that, by the Autumn of 1961, Hopps had left the Ferus to accept an assistant curatorship at the Pasadena Art Museum.
"When I arrived there [Los Angeles] in 1957, there were very few galleries in the city. One had been opened in 1956 by Walter Hopps and the artist Ed Kienholz. This was the Ferus Gallery, and its extraordinary vitality interested me very much. I became friendly with Walter, and he told me that Kienholz, after a year in the business, wanted to go back to making sculpture and possibly was willing to sell his share. I bought him out for around $600, which was very reasonable, for about three years, until he accepted an assistant curatorship at the Pasadena Museum in 1960. I then proceeded alone with the Ferus Gallery until 1966."6
According to Hopps, however, by 1961 "Blum was running Ferus Gallery, but I still had ownership stock and had stayed involved."7 Hopps' description of what he saw at Warhol's studio included some of Warhol's comic strip or cartoon character paintings:
"There was his big painting where Superman is going 'Puff!' as he blows out a fire. There was the Dick Tracy painting with his sidekick Sam Ketchum. There was work from the same era as The Menil Collection's Icebox, paintings that are based on printed advertising... Warhol gave us copies of his little book of cat drawings... Then he brought out of the closet a large painting that wasn't stretched yet and rolled it out. It was done in a whole new, more highly refined style - another Superman flying through the air, this time with Lois Lane in his arms. The style was far more precise, with the flat look of the original comic strip. That Superman and Lois Lane has since disappeared. Some of the paintings, like those of a large black-and-white telephone, a smaller Underwood typewriter, and other advertising takeoffs, were rendered precisely. The lost Superman painting was just as smooth as it could be, though it wasn't silk screened: it was hand-painted. Others, like the Dick Tracy painting, were looser and more painterly."8
In the book, The Art Dealers, first published in 1984, Irving Blum maintains that he had his "first encounter" with Andy Warhol around the same time that Leo Castelli's assistant, Ivan Karp, showed him slides of Roy Lichtenstein's work. Blum says that he "decided virtually on the spot" to show Warhol's work at the Ferus, noting that Warhol had "no representation at that time" but "had sold one or two things with Martha Jackson and Allan Stone."9 This version of events differs slightly from a previous version that Blum gave to author Patrick Smith during an in interview on October 20, 1978. During Smith's interview, Blum talks about two visits to Warhol - before and after Warhol started painting his Soup Cans. On the first visit Blum was shown Warhol's cartoon paintings.
"Andy seemed a bit shy, very shy, very charming, very gracious, and he was delighted in showing me six or seven paintings which were all unfinished cartoon-like pictures. I was absolutely mystified by them, coming from an orientation of first and second generation Abstract Expressionism and being involved with that style... And, so I stayed for a while, chatted with him for a while, liked him very much, but left without making any commitment to anything, put the experience very much out of my mind and went back to California..."10
According to this version of events, It wasn't until a second visit "several months" later that Blum offered Warhol a show at the Ferus. Between the two visits Warhol had stopped painting cartoon characters and started painting Soup Cans.
CLAES OLDENBURG'S STORE
In late 1961/early 1962, Warhol and Ted Carey went downtown to Claes Oldenburg's "The Store" exhibition and Carey also visited a James Rosenquist exhibition at the Green Gallery. He rang Warhol after seeing Rosenquist's work:
"... Oldenburg was having an exhibition downtown in 'The Store' - it was a fabulous store. He just rented a store and just did the whole store in cakes, pies... I mean it was incredible. And going down there with Andy, and it was just overwhelming and so fabulous that Andy was so depressed. He said, 'I'm so depressed.' And I can remember right about this same time, going to the Green Gallery, and I remember I called Andy. I said, 'There's somebody at the Green Gallery called Rosenquist, who's doing paintings, like a bottle of 7 Up.' I said 'They're fabulous.' I can remember saying 'I think they're really wonderful. I think I'd like to buy one.' And Andy said, 'Oh.' He said, 'If you buy one of those paintings, I'll never speak to you again.' I mean, he was just so depressed that it was all happening and he was not getting any recognition..."11
THE SOUP CANS
Ted Carey's comments indicate that at the beginning of 1962 Warhol was still without a gallery. The Rosenquist exhibition at the Green Gallery took place January 30 - February 17, 1962. The advertised exhibition dates of Claes Oldenburg's downtown "The Store" exhibition were December 1 - 31, 1961 although it was extended through January 1962. (BR201) It was the second version of "The Store." The first version had been exhibited at the Martha Jackson gallery in a group show, "Environments, Situations, Spaces," from May 25 - June 23, 1961. (BR201/BL140) An exhibition of Oldenburg's large scale soft sculptures would also be shown at Richard Bellamy's Green Gallery from September 18 - October 20, 1962. (BL140) As Carey refers to the "downtown" show, we know that he was talking about the exhibition that took place in December '61/January '62 as Jackson's gallery and the Green Gallery were both located uptown. Oldenburg used his own studio for the second version of "The Store" - a storefront that he had began renting in June 1961 located at 107 East Second Street.
Because Warhol was depressed about still not having a gallery, Carey asked him to dinner but Warhol refused so Carey and his dinner guest, the interior designer and art dealer, Muriel Latow, visited Warhol at his home afterwards. It was during that visit that Latow apparently came up with the idea for the Soup Cans. According to Carey, the decision by Warhol to stop painting comic strip characters and to start painting soup cans was a result of Warhol seeing Lichtenstein's work and needing to come up with new subject matter.
"I said, 'John, Muriel [Latow] and I are having dinner tonight. Do you want to have dinner with us?' And he [Andy Warhol] said, 'No, I'm just too depressed.' So, I said, 'Maybe we'll come by afterwards.' ... So after dinner we went to Andy's, and he was very depressed... Andy said I've got to do something.' He said, 'the cartoon paintings... it's too late. I've got to do something that really will have a lot of impact that will be different enough from Lichtenstein and Rosenquist, that will be very personal, that won't look like I'm doing exactly what they're doing.' And he said, 'I don't know what to do.' So, he said, 'Muriel, you've got fabulous ideas. Can't you give me an idea?' And, so, Muriel said... 'you've got to find something that's recognizable to almost everybody. Something you see every day that everybody would recognize. Something like a can of Campbell's Soup.' So Andy said, 'oh that sounds fabulous.' So, the next day Andy went out to the supermarket - because we went by the next day - and we came in, and he had a case of... all the soups..."12
Although Carey's comments indicate that LaTow came up with the idea of the Soup Cans after Oldenburg's downtown "Store" opened on December 1, 1961, Warhol apparently paid Latow $50 for the idea and the cheque is dated November 23, 1961 - see NOVEMBER 23, 1961: ANDY WARHOL WRITES A CHECK TO MURIEL LATOW FOR $50.
According to one version of events offered by Leo Castelli's assistant, Ivan Karp, it was after Warhol started painting Soup Cans that Karp brought Castelli to Warhol's home to see his work. Karp remembers Castelli buying a small Soup Can canvas during the visit.
"I then took Leo to the studio [of Andy Warhol]. One might say he was put off by the work, and especially by Andy, who was shy and rather eccentric looking. I expect Leo was uncomfortable since Andy was wearing a theatrical mask when we came in, and offered one to each of us. Leo thought the paintings were odd, too, but he did buy a small Soup Can painting, on the spot, for $45. The fact that the work looked like Lichtenstein's was also disconcerting to him. He wondered how the idea had come to Andy and if he had seen Roy's work before he had started his own. Andy said the first Lichtenstein he had seen was in our show. When we left, Leo said he was not about to show Warhol's work. He mentioned the similarity to Lichtenstein, but I think he was somewhat turned off by the mask, the rock-and-roll music, and the background of elaborate furnishings. Later on, Robert Elkon and Martha Jackson went to Warhol's studio and also rejected his work."13
If Karp's version of events is to be believed, this visit must have been around or after February/March 1962 as Karp mentions "our show" of Lichtenstein's work and the first Lichtenstein show at Castelli took place February 10 - March 3, 1962. Ted Carey's comments indicate that it was after he and Warhol visited the Oldenburg "Store" and Rosenquist's show that Warhol started painting the Soup Cans. The Rosenquist show opened on January 30, 1962. This would apparently indicate that Warhol began painting the Soup Cans after January 30th, however, the Andy Warhol Catalogue Raisonné has attributed Warhol's earliest Soup Cans to late 1961. One early can has an inscription by Warhol dated January 26th, before the Rosenquist show opened. (RN064) It may be that Carey saw some Rosenquists at the Green Gallery prior to the opening of Rosenquist's solo show or incorrectly recalled his conversation with Warhol. Warhol and Carey could have gone to the Oldenburg show in early December, with Warhol starting his Soup Cans at some point afterwards - during December 1961. Or, if Carey had seen some Rosenquists before the show opened, the first Soup Cans could have been done in January 1962.
As noted earlier (in the section titled "Irving Blum") it was after Warhol started painting his Soup Cans that Irving Blum made a second visit to Warhol's apartment to see his work. According to Blum this was in 1961 but the Andy Warhol Catalogue Raisonné has indicated it was actually May 1962. A letter from Blum to Warhol dated June 9, 1962 set the exhibition opening for July 9th. (BR070) Blum had returned to New York, seen Lichtenstein's work at Castelli's and initially thought that they were done by Warhol because they resembled the paintings that Warhol had shown him during his previous visit to Warhol's studio. He then decided to visit Warhol's apartment again, but when he got there he was shown Soup Cans instead of cartoons.
Several months after [the first visit to Warhol]... I had the opportunity to return to New York... I went to visit Ivan Karp at Leo Castelli's gallery. I was doing business with Leo... I spoke to Ivan, and he was very glad to see me. And I was talking with him for a while, and he said, 'Irving I have some transparencies of some work that I think might interest you'... And he showed me some cartoon paintings, and I said, I know that I've seen these - Warhol.' And Ivan said, 'No' He said, 'A guy by the name of Lichtenstein - lives in New Jersey - brought these in'... So I made that connection between what I had seen several months earlier in Andy's studio... I made several connections very quickly in terms of Roy's work, and I agreed at that very moment to have an exhibit on the West Coast, somewhere down the line, when it was comfortable for both Leo and Ivan to organize. And I left and called Andy on the telephone and asked if I might go back to his studio and visit with him again. And he said, Please do.' And I went and there was a whole series of small Soup Can paintings leaning up against the wall, and he was into - this was 1961 - he was into the Soup Can series. And I said to him, 'Andy what happened to the big cartoon paintings you showed me?'"14
When Blum asked Warhol why he had stopped painting his cartoon paintings and started painting soup cans instead, Warhol indicated it was because Lichtenstein was already doing cartoon paintings.
"He [Warhol] said that he wanted into Leo's gallery, and Ivan had shown him slides by an artist that he couldn't recall, who was also working in this format, and that he was doing them much better than he was doing. And so, he kind of stopped them, and, so he was doing the Soup Cans instead... I spent quite a time looking at the Soup Cans paintings. Liked them. And there and then, organized an exhibit on the West Coast of all the Soup Can paintings..."15
See also: "The Origins of Andy Warhol's Soup Cans or The Synthesis of Nothingness."
WARHOL'S FIRST POP EXHIBITION
Warhol's exhibition at the Ferus took place July 9 - August 4, 1962 and featured 32 varieties of Campbell's Soup.
Los Angeles Times (August 1, 1962)
"... the paintings arrived in California in July 1962. I showed them by encircling the gallery with the thirty two Soup Cans, all of them the same size... When people confronted these pictures for the first time, they didn't know how to deal with them. The paintings were extremely controversial. They were priced at $100 a piece, and after two weeks I had sold six at that figure... After about three weeks, I rang Andy up and said, 'Andy, I am haunted by these pictures, and I want to suggest something to you. I am going to attempt to keep these thirty-two paintings together, as a set.' Andy said, 'Irving, I'm thrilled, because they were conceived as a group, a series. If you could keep them together it would make me very happy...' As soon as I hung up I called the first collector I had sold one of those paintings to - I think it may have been Dennis Hopper. I explained what I wanted to do, and he gracefully relinquished the picture to me. I did that six times, and when I had the complete set, I called Andy to tell him. I then asked, now that I had all the paintings together and intended to keep them, what price could he [Warhol] make me on the group? Andy offered me all of them for $1,000 over the course of a year, and we agreed that I would send him $100 a month."16
According to Blum, the exhibition was greeted with both hostility and amusement.
"The artists, who were very hostile... were provoked by these paintings... It was very peculiar. There was a lot of amusement. People felt that they were somehow slightly ridiculous. A gallery dealer up the road, I remember, did something that was very well publicized at the time. He bought dozens and dozens and dozens of cans of Campbell Soup cans at the supermarket, put them in his window, and said, 'Buy them cheaper here - 60 cents for three cans.' Or something like that. And so, there was a lot of hilarity regarding them. Not a great deal of serious interest... in fact, hardly any serious speculation. But a lot of carnival-like activity regarding the exhibition."17
In addition to "hilarity," the paintings provoked both intellectual and emotional responses from viewers. People wondered what the concept was behind them and at least one reviewer was reminded of his own childhood by the Campbell's logo. Henry T. Hopkins' nostalgic review in the September 1962 issue of Artforum magazine mentioned comic books as part of that nostalgia.
Henry T. Hopkins:
"To those of us who grew up during the cream-coloured thirties with Big-Little Books, comic books, and a Johnson and Smith Catalogue, as constant companions; when 'good, hot soup' sustained us between digging caves in the vacant lot and having 'clod' fights without fear of being tabbed as juvenile delinquents; when the Campbell Soup Kids romped gaily in four colours on the overleaf from the Post Script page in The Saturday Evening Post, this show has peculiar significance... Warhol obviously doesn't want to give us much to cling to in the way of sweet handling, preferring instead the hard commercial surface of his philosophical cronies. But then house fetishes rarely compete with Rembrandt in esthetic significance. However, based on formal arrangements, intellectual and emotional response, one finds favourites. Mine is Onion.18
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