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The Origin of Andy Warhol's Soup Cans or The Synthesis of Nothingness

by Gary Comenas (2022)

See also: Andy Warhol and Household Objects

Campbell's Soup Can ad showing a can of Campbell's soup like the one painted by Andy Warhol

Campbell's Soup ad from the 1940s

Robert Indiana: "I knew Andy very well. The reason he painted soup cans is that he liked soup." (RI623)

Marcel Duchamp: "If you take a Campbell Soup Can and repeat it fifty times, you are not interested in the retinal image. What interests you is the concept that wants to put fifty Campbell soup cans on a canvas." (QU)

Martin Heidegger: "... at bottom, the ordinary is not ordinary; it is extraordinary."
("The Origin of the Work of Art")

Andy Warhol used soup cans as subject matter at various stages of his career. In addition to the Campbell's Soup Can paintings of the early 1960s he also produced portfolios of soup can prints in 1968 and 1969. During the mid-1970s soup cans were included in his Reversals and Retrospectives series and in 1985 soup can imagery was again used by him in a series of small silkscreens. (AWM41)

Various people have taken credit for suggesting to Andy Warhol that he paint soup cans. According to Ted Carey (a close friend of Warhol during the late 1950s/early 1960s), it was the gallerist Muriel Latow who came up with the idea for both the Soup Cans and Warhol's money paintings. On 23 November 1961 Warhol wrote Latow a cheque for $50 (more than $300 in 2010 terms) which, according to the 2009 Warhol biography, Pop: The Genius of Andy Warhol, was payment for coming up with the idea of the soup cans.

The Campbell's Soup Can paintings weren't Warhol's first Pop paintings. He had previously done works based on advertising imagery and comic strip characters which were shown for a short period of time as part of a window display at the Bonwit Teller department store in April 1961. But when he heard that another artist, Roy Lichtenstein, was painting comic strip characters as well, he needed new subject matter. The new subject matter would be soup cans.

Ted Carey sees Robert Lichtenstein paintings at the Leo Castelli Gallery

According to Warhol's friend, Ted Carey, it was Carey who first saw Lichtenstein's paintings at the Leo Castelli Gallery and after seeing them "went right over to Andy's house" to tell him about the paintings. In Carey's account Warhol was convinced that Lichtenstein got the idea of painting comic strip characters from having seen Warhol's comic strip paintings at Bonwit Teller.

Ted Carey and Andy Warhol

Ted Carey and Andy Warhol (Photographer unknown)

Ted Carey:

"... 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... 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." (PS255)

Lichtenstein later denied that he had any knowledge of Warhol's comic strip paintings prior to doing his own:

Roy Lichtenstein:

"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." (BE39n.21)

It is unlikely that Lichtenstein saw Warhol's cartoon paintings at Castelli as early as spring 1961 as the gallery did not have any of Warhol's cartoon paintings at that time, but Lichtenstein could have seen them in spring 1961 in the Bonwit Teller department store window. Although Lichtenstein had been using comic book imagery in his paintings since 1957, he did not do paintings of comic strips that featured speech bubbles until he painted Look Mickey. According to art writer Avis Berman, "From the accounts of witnesses, it seems clear that Look Mickey, Lichtenstein's first surviving Pop painting, was executed in mid to late June of 1961." (AV122) If that was the case, then Warhol was the first of the two painters to incorporate speech bubbles into their paintings and the first to display them publicly. Timewise, it was possible that Lichtenstein adopted the speech bubble after seeing Warhol's paintings but improbable, given his denial. There's no hard evidence that Lichtenstein copied Warhol's idea, as Warhol apparently believed.

Of the two artists, Lichtenstein was the first to be signed to a gallery. In October 1961 Leo Castelli officially signed Lichtenstein to his gallery, paying him a stipend of $400 a month, whereas Warhol was still without a dealer. As Carey put it, "Lichtenstein was being shown by Castelli... [and] was going to get the credit..." (AV132/WC90)

Ted Carey:

"Lichtenstein was being shown by Castelli, which was, like, the Pop gallery. Lichtenstein was going to get the credit. So, all of these paintings that Andy had done, even if they had been done and had been recognized as being done before Lichtenstein, were really going to be anti-climatic. And, I remember that right about this time that 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 of a bottle of 7-Up.'" (WC90)

Murial Latow: "Something like a can of soup."

After seeing Oldenburg's "downtown" version of "The Store" Carey invited Warhol to dinner. Warhol was too depressed to go so Carey and his boyfriend John Mann visited Warhol in his home after the dinner, along with the gallerist Muriel Latow. It was then that Latow allegedly came up with the idea of the soup cans as well as the idea of doing paintings of money.

Ted Carey:

"... this particular day, after going to the Oldenburg Store, I called him [Warhol] when I got home, and I said 'John, Muriel, and I are having dinner tonight. Do you want to have dinner with us?' And he said, 'No, I'm just too depressed'... so, after dinner we went to Andy's, and he was very depressed. And Muriel was depressed because she was either at this time declaring bankruptcy or was about to declare bankruptcy... And so 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, 'Yes.' 'But,' she said, 'it's going to cost you money.' So Andy said, 'How much?' So she said, 'Fifty dollars.' She said, 'Get your cheque book and write me a cheque for fifty dollars.' And Andy ran and got his cheque book, like, you know, he was really crazy and he wrote out the cheque. He said, 'All right, Give me a fabulous idea.' And so Muriel said, What do you like more than anything else in the world?' So Andy said, 'I don't know. What?' So she said, 'Money' ... And so Andy said, 'Oh, that's wonderful.' So then either that, or, she said, 'you've got to find something that's recognizable to almost everybody. Something you see everyday that everybody would recognize. Something like a can of Campbell's Soup.'" (WC90-91)

But if Latow wrote the cheque on November 23rd as mentioned at the beginning of this essay, it would have been before the opening of Oldenburg's downtown version of his "Store" which opened on 1 December 1961. Yet Carey says he specifically remembered "that right about this time...Oldenburg was having an exhibition downtown in 'The Store'" and that he [Carey] invited Warhol to dinner with him and Muriel and John "after going to the Oldenburg Store." He also mentions seeing Rosenquist's work at the Green Gallery. Rosenquist's solo exhibition at the Green Gallery didn't open until January 30, 1962. In order to have seen Oldenburg's downtown "Store" on the day he rang Warhol and to have also gone to the Rosenquist exhibition, Carey's phone call and visit would have had to have been on January 30th or 31st, 1962 (after the Rosenquist show had opened but before the "Store" had closed), assuming that it was Rosenquist's solo show that Carey was referring to. But one of of Warhol's Campbell's Soup Can paintings is inscribed January 26, 1962 and Warhol's brother, Paul Warhola, recalled being given a Soup Can painting around Christmas 1961. According to Warhol biographer, David Bourdon, the art dealer Allan Stone included a small Campbell's Soup Can painting at his gallery in a group show in December 1961. (RN64)

The above quote by Carey does not exactly inspire confidence in the accuracy of his recollection, particularly the way he says (after mentioning the money painting idea) "So then either that, or, she [Latow] said" that Warhol should paint "something like a can of Campbell's Soup." The soup cans are added almost as a afterthought by Carey to his story about Latow coming up with the idea of Warhol painting money. Was Carey confusing Latow's idea of painting money with the soup cans? If Latow came up with both ideas at the same time, was Warhol's cheque a payment for the soup can idea or the money painting idea or both?

Emile Antonio: Eleanor Ward suggested painting money

There is an alternative version of how Warhol came up with the idea of painting money that is worth examining since if Carey was wrong about the money idea, he may have been wrong about the origination of the Soup Cans as well. According to Warhol's friend, the filmmaker, Emile de Antonio, it wasn't Latow who came up with the idea of painting money. It was Warhol's first dealer, Eleanor Ward, who originally suggested it.

The Andy Warhol Cat. Rais. refers to de Antonio's version, stating that "A different account credits the idea of painting money to Eleanor Ward. According to Ward and Emile de Antonio, Ward had promised Warhol a one-person exhibition at Stable Gallery if he would paint her lucky two dollar bill." The statement in the catalogue raisonné is footnoted "Smith 1986, 512; Bockris 1989, 111." This refers to an interview with Eleanor Ward by Patrick Smith in Andy Warhol's Art and Films and to a quote by Emile de Antonio in Victor Bockris' biography of the artist - The Life and Death of Andy Warhol.

In his book, Bockris quotes de Antonio as saying that he took Ward to Andy's house and said, "Well, come on, look here, Elinor [sic], are you giving Andy a show or not...?" and Ward then "pulled out her lucky two-dollar bill and sort of waved it in his face and she said, 'Andy, it just so happens I have November, which as you know is the best month to show, and if you do a painting of this two-dollar bill for me I'll give you a show.'" (LD150) Yet, in the actual interview that Ward gave to Smith in the other cited source, Andy Warhol Art and Films, Ward, herself, simply states that "I had given him [Warhol] my lucky two dollar bill to do a painting for the first show." (PS512) This has been interpreted to mean that Warhol agreed to do the painting in exchange for the show, however, an equally valid reading of Ward's statement would be that she just wanted him to do the painting to display in the show, along with his other paintings. In the Smith interview Ward credits the idea of doing a Warhol show to her "guardian angel" and indicates that it was John Bedenkapp who was with her when she asked Warhol to do the solo exhibition at her gallery rather than de Antonio, although she does note that de Antonio brought Warhol into her gallery at an earlier time.

Eleanor Ward and Alan Groh

Eleanor Ward with her assistant Alan Groh at the ice house in Old Lyme, Ct. (c. 1958)

Eleanor Ward:

"... he [Warhol] was brought into the gallery by De Antonio, and I immediately liked Andy as a person... the gallery was, at that time, completely booked up... but in May or June... I had to ask an artist [Alex Katz] - very prominent - to leave the gallery... He had been scheduled for an exhibition in November... but this was in June and the gallery was about to close - and I spent my summers in Connecticut then - and I decided I wasn't going to worry about it of think about it, but the right thing would happen at the right time. And I had a lovely ice house in Connecticut outside of Old Lyme - a reconverted ice house; it was enchanting... and I was out on the lawn one summer, a lazy summer afternoon, sunning, reading, and John [Bedenkapp], an old friend, an architect, was there, and I was lying there on my back, sunning, with my eyes closed, not thinking about anything in the world, and suddenly a voice said, 'Andy Warhol.' I hadn't been thinking about artists, I hadn't been thinking about the art world. I hadn't been thinking about the gallery. Everything was utterly remote. I sat up and thought, 'How extraordinary!' My guardian angel. I looked across at John, who was in one of those beach things, you know: sunning and I said, 'John, I think I'm going to call Andy Warhol. And if I can reach him and make an appointment to look at his work, would you like to go with me?' And he said, 'I'd love to.' So I immediately went into the house, looked up Andy's number, called - this is the first time in my life that I'd ever called him. He answered the telephone, and I told him who I was. And I said, 'Can I come and look at your work?' and he said, 'Wow!' And so we made an appointment, and John, indeed, went with me... And Andy showed me this collection of work, and I was absolutely stupefied. There were Marilyn Monroes, there were Do-It-Yourself paintings, the Elvis Presley pictures, the Liz Taylor, Campbell Soup Cans. It was an incredible collection. I was absolutely riveted. And I said, 'Andy, by a miracle, I have November - which as you know is the prime month of the year,' and I said 'I can show you in November.' And he said, 'Wow!' So that was it." (PS504-5)

Ward gave a similar account in an interview published in John Wilcock's book, The Autobiography & Sex Life of Andy Warhol By John Wilcock with a cast of thousands (NY: Other Scenes Inc, 1971), again mentioning that John Bedenkapp (not Emile de Antonio) was with her when she invited Warhol to do the show. She does say, however, that she thought that Emile de Antonio "first brought him [Warhol] into the gallery" the year it opened in its then current location - which was, according to Ward, 1960. When Wilcock asks Ward what Andy "was into at that time," she responds "He was doing the Campbell's Soups." Wilcock then asks her "As early as that?" and she responds "Yes, and a few other things." It is unlikely that Warhol was already doing Soup Cans in 1960 as none of his contemporaries recall him doing the paintings that early. When curator Walter Hopps visited Warhol's studio in the autumn of 1961, he recalled seeing a Dick Tracy, Superman, Telephone, Typewriter "and other advertising takeoffs" but no Soup Cans. (PK44)

Ward indicates in the Smith interview that it was June 1962 when she came up with the idea of Warhol's exhibition. If this is true, de Antonio's claim that Ward gave Warhol the idea of painting two dollar bills in exchange for a show cannot be true. The Andy Warhol Catalogue Raisonné attributes Warhol's Two Dollar Bill paintings to the same period as his One Dollar Bill paintings - March to April 1962 - which was before Ward approached Warhol about the show. (RN131/147) She could not have been the person who came up with the idea as Warhol was already doing two dollar bills by the time she approached him about the show in June.

Murial Latow vs. Eleanor Ward

As de Antonio's recollection may be inaccurate, Carey's version of events may, ultimately, be the most dependable i.e. that it was Latow, not Ward who came up with the idea of painting money and that at the same time, she also suggested the soup can idea. The first time that the Latow version was published was in an essay by Calvin Tomkins, Raggedy Andy, in 1970. Tomkins does not credit the story to Carey but doesn't indicate where his information came from. Could it be that Carey was simply repeating a story he had read in Tomkins' account when Patrick Smith interviewed him (Carey) in 1978? Or had he given Tomkins the information in the first place? If Latow came up with the idea for the money paintings on the evening of 23 November - when Warhol wrote his cheque to her - why did he wait four months before he started working on the paintings? In Carey's version, Latow's main idea was the money idea not the soup can idea - the soup cans were added as an afterthought, yet Warhol went straight out and bought the cans of soup rather than beginning the money paintings in Carey's account.

Claes Oldenburg

And what about the exhibitions Carey mentions as occurring around the time the soup can idea was supposedly first brought up? None of the exhibitions took place prior to 23 November. It's possible that Carey was confusing an earlier uptown version of Oldenburg's store which opened on 25 May 1961 at the Martha Jackson Gallery with the downtown version which opened 1 December 1962. It's also possible that the Rosenquist paintings he saw at the Green Gallery were exhibited in the gallery prior to the opening of Rosenquist's solo show on 30 January 1962. Yet Carey is very specific, at least in regard to the Oldenburg show, saying "I remember that right about this time that Oldenburg was having an exhibition downtown in "The Store" and claims that it was the evening of the day that he and Warhol visited "The Store" that Latow came up with the soup can idea.

Although the shows mentioned by Carey occurred after the 23rd, there were other exhibitions of the new art which incorporated commonplace objects as subjects and/or material that Warhol could have attended prior to the 23rd. Oldenburg, himself, had previously exhibited at the Judson gallery as early as 1959. In February-March 1959 he was in a group show that also included future Pop artist Tom Wesselmann. He had a solo show at the same venue in May-June 1959 and was part of the "Judson Group" that exhibited there in October 1959 which again included Wesselmann, along with Jim Dine. There was another Oldenburg-Dine show in November-December 1959 and during the following year Dine's "House" and Oldenburg's "Street" environments were installed there. Oldenburg's "Ray Gun and Spex" show was at the Judson from February - March 1960. (PC405)

New Forms - New Media at the Martha Jackson Gallery

New Forms New Media catalogue

Exhibition catalogue for "New Forms New Media" (aka "New Media New Forms") at the Martha Jackson Gallery

Warhol could also have been exposed to the new art at the ground-breaking "New Forms - New Media" show at the Martha Jackson Gallery in 1960. The show was divided into two parts with the first taking place June 6 - 24, 1960 and the second part from September 28 - October 22, 1960. More than seventy artists participated, including Oldenburg, Jasper Johns, and Robert Rauschenberg. The show is sometimes referred to as "New Media New Forms" or even "New Mediums New Forms" - as in the following review by Thomas R. Hess that appeared in the summer 1960 issue of Art News:

From Thomas R. Hess' review of "New Mediums - New Forms" (Art News, Summer 1960):

"A lively, in places a brilliant exhibition, titled 'New Mediums - New Forms' at the Jackson Gallery informally poses one of the most interesting questions that concerns modern art 1960. It assembles free-standing works and reliefs made of sponge, wood pegs, tacks, a smashed fender, folded paper, ping-pong balls, playing cards, spikes, a stuffed chicken, a cut-out bird, tar, garter-belts, coffee-grounds, a railroad tie, styrofoam, polyesters, corrugate, pillows, an electro-magnet - rubbish and valuables, 'garlic and sapphires in the mud...' Chronologically, the start is ancestral objects by Arp, Schwitters, Calder (but where is St. Marcel?)... Not all the works in the exhibition, of course, break with that ambiguous stasis which has been the strength and the purity of the fine arts since long before its definition by Aristotle and which will endure until generations from now... But an attack on the aristocracy of art by and with art is the main point of the exhibition - although 'attack' is too aggressive a noun for the witty, ingratiating social activity to which so many of these works are dedicated." (PC10-11)

Commonplace Objects

The review is of interest not only because Hess notes the importance and the extent of commonplace objects in the new art, but also because he links it to the Dada movement and expresses surprise that there was no work by "St. Marcel" i.e. Marcel Duchamp. Warhol's work would also be likened to that of Duchamp.

Life Magazine and Robert Rauschenberg

If Warhol had managed to miss all the above exhibitions, he would have at least read about the new art in Life magazine which he was known to read. (He would later use images from Life for paintings such as his Race Riots series and two of his Suicide paintings in 1963. (RN292-3/383)) The November 24th issue of Life (coincidently dated the day after the visit by Latow - although the issue probably would have come out at least a week in advance) - featured a ten page article ("Art Crashes Through The Junk Pile") on the new artists (such as Robert Rauschenberg and John Chamberlain) who created art out of "junk," taking its inspiration (and materials) from urban detritus including cans, cartoons and bottles.

Robert Rauschenberg

Robert Rauschenberg (as a collage) in Life magazine, 24 November 1961 (Photo: Art Kane)

From "Art Crashes Through the Junk Pile," Life magazine, 24 November 1961, p. 63:

"Across the U.S., mountainous piles of junk sprawl over city lots and rural fields, monuments to the affluence of the machine age. To most passerby, these wastelands of waste are only an eyesore. But to a large number of today's artists, they are a gold mine - both of inspiration and of materials. From the exhaust pipes, bedsprings, cans, cartons, bottles, dismembered toys, wheels and other debris of the trash heap, painters and sculptors are fashioning a startling species of contemporary art... Whatever the reaction to it, the junk movement is in full flood around the globe. A colossal assortment of its products is currently touring the U.S. in an exhibition organized by New York's Museum of Modern..."

And even Life was linking the new art to Dada. The article continued, "The origins of junk art go back to some famous - and in their day, infamous - 20th Century pioneers, the cubists and dadaists." The exhibition of "junk art" referred to in the magazine was the "The Art of Assemblage" which ran at the Museum of Modern Art from 2 October - 12 November 1961, just prior to Warhol starting the Soup Cans. The exhibition catalogue featured text by William C. Seitz, as below. (Seitz's use of "neo'" in his text is a reference to the term "neo-dada" which was used to describe the new art until the term "Pop" came into play.)

William C. Seitz (The Art of the Assemblage (NY: Museum of Modern Art, 1961), p. 87):

"Assemblage is a new medium... It has indeed provided an effective outlet for artists of a generation weaned on abstract expressionism but unwilling to mannerize Pollock, de Kooning, or other masters whom they admire. Because of their concern for subject matter, painting and sculpture are not their only influences. Many cultivate attitudes that could be labeled 'angry,' 'beat,' or 'sick'; they inherit a malaise shared by authors such as Kaka, Sartre, Beckett, and Ionesco. Certain of their attitudes are comparable to those of the dada period; but why (especially considering the overtone of tired academicism which it can imply) is the prefix 'neo' more applicable in 1961 that it was in 1921?..."

Assemblage has become, temporarily at least, the language for impatient, hyper-critical, and anarchistic young artists With it, or admixtures of it with painting and sculpture, they have give form to content drawn from popular culture: more recent equivalents, as the English critic Reyner Banham argues, of Boccioni's love of 'all anti-art manifestations of our epoch - cafe-chantant, gramophone, cinema, electric advertising, mechanistic architecture, skyscrapers.. nightlife... speed, automobiles, aeroplanes and so forth."

Schenley Park and Robert Lepper in Life magazine

If Warhol needed any further evidence that a new movement of art had begun based on "content drawn from popular culture" (and that, still being without a dealer, he was missing out on it) he needed only to have looked at the following week's issue of Life which featured the annual Carnegie International Exhibition of Art in his home town of Pittsburgh. Again the show focused on the new art, with photographs of the art taken in Schenley Park (presumably not far from Schenley High School where Warhol had been a student) and on the grounds of Warhol's alma mater, Carnegie Tech.

william turnbull art

Photos in the Life article included this one of Number 10, 1959 (left) by British artist William Turnbull juxtaposed against real archery targets on the campus of Andy Warhol's alma mater, Carnegie Tech.

As if to rub salt into the wound, one of the people whose art was pictured in the Life article was Warhol's instructor at the university, Robert Lepper, who had used found objects ("assorted metal parts from cars and compressors") to create a work titled Engine. Also included was a photograph of Number 10, 1959 by British artist William Turnbull. The new figurative art movement was apparently international. Both Turnbull and Reyner Banham (whom Seitz quoted in MOMA's exhibition catalogue for the assemblage exhibition) had been members of the Independent Group in the U.K. during the 1950s. It was amongst the Independent Group members that "some of the earliest stirrings of Pop in England, and the coining of the term in the late 1950s, took place," according to art writer Marco Livingstone. (ML33)

First use of the term "pop art" in print

The first time that the words "pop art" were used in print was in an article by two members of the Independent Group, Alison and Peter Smithson, in an article appropriately titled "But Today We Collect Ads." The term was used to describe the popular art found in "today's glossies bound up with the throw-away object."

From Alison and Peter Smithson, "But Today We Collect Ads," Ark magazine No. 18, November 1956:

"The fine artist is often unaware that his patron, or more often his patron's wife who leafs through the magazines, is living in a different visual world from his own. The pop art of today, the equivalent of the Dutch fruit and flower arrangement, the pictures of second rank of all Renaissance schools, and the plates that first presented to the public the Wonder of the Machine Age and the New Territories, is to be found in today's glossies bound up with the throw-away object."

Although it is tempting to think that the Smithsons' article was one of the influences that caused Warhol to use advertising imagery in his early pre-Soup Can paintings, it is improbable (but not impossible) that he saw the article. The magazine that contained it, Ark, was published by the Royal College of Art in London but had subscribers in 32 countries. Warhol might also have seen news of group shows in the U.K. by artists associated with the Independent Group such as "Man, Machine and Motion," "Parallel of Life and Art" or the landmark "This is Tomorrow" show of 1956.

The Smithsons

The main difference between the Smithsons' (British) "pop art" and the Americans' (still yet to be named) "Pop Art," was that the Smithsons referred to the "glossies bound up with the throw-away object" in a derogatory fashion whereas in the U.S. the glossies and disposable culture were embraced by artists. The screen idols in "today's glossies" became artistic icons and the "throw-away object became "junk art." Although Warhol's Soup Cans and his early Pop paintings may have lacked the industrial feel of the work of the assemblage or "junk" artists, all derived their subject matter and/or materials from commonplace or "found" objects. Often the found images or objects harked back to the past. John Chamberlain is quoted in the Life magazine article on junk art as saying that he preferred using car parts that have "a look of history" for his car crash sculptures and Robert Rauschenberg is quoted as saying his assemblages are more about "yesterday's going-on than today's." Prior to doing his Soup Cans, Warhol also used imagery from the past, including 1928 images of a telephone for his Telephone paintings, a reproduction of a 1936 image of a typewriter for Typewriter and a 1951 version of the Dick Tracy comic strip for Dick Tracy painting. Although he used contemporary 1961 imagery for his Soup Cans, the design of the can was the same as it had been the previous decades and Warhol said that he painted it, not because it was a modern icon of capitalism, but because it reminded him of his past - as a child he had eaten soup everyday. One reviewer of the famous 1962 Soup Can show at the Ferus Gallery picked up on the nostalgia element of the paintings:

Henry T. Hopkins (Artforum, September 1962):

"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." (PC266)

John Mann

But if Warhol painted the soup cans because he ate soup everyday as a child, could Carey's story that Latow had come up with the idea, still be true? There was one other person present that evening - Carey's lover, John Mann. But according to Mann, Warhol painted the Campbell's Soup Cans not because he liked soup, but because he hated it.

From Pop: The Genius of Andy Warhol (NY:Harper, 2009) by Tony Scherman and David Dalton:

"Mann's recollection of the evening was different from Latow's. Muriel, he said, began by feeling Warhol out, asking him what he liked and, at one point, what he disliked. According to Mann, "If you asked Andy a question like that you got a pretty flippant answer, something off the top of his head. And as I recall, he said, 'I hate grocery shopping.'" As it turned out Mrs. Warhola often asked Andy to run across the street for groceries. 'So Muriel mentally took him into the A&P, down the aisles. It was all very languid and flip on Andy's part. Before long, they got to Campbell's soup and Andy said he hated that, too. He said that his mother made it every day for lunch and after all those years, it was like, 'Oh, Mom - again?'"

Which particular Campbell's soups, Latow asked, did Andy dislike? All of them, he said. In that case, suggested Latow, why not run over, buy one of each and paint them all..." (SC75)

This is considerably different than Carey's version of the same evening. In 2002 Latow was interviewed for Scherman/Dalton's biography of Warhol and gave a slightly different version than either Carey or Mann.

From Pop: The Genius of Andy Warholpop genius of warhol book (NY:Harper, 2009) by Tony Scherman and David Dalton:

"That afternoon, Muriel Latow had gotten a phone call from Ted Carey. Andy was driving him (and Mann) nuts, said Ted. He wouldn't stop asking them where Muriel was; he wanted to pick her brain. In a rotten mood herself - her gallery was going out of business - Latow joined Ted and John for dinner. 'Then,' she said, 'we went to the gloomy, gloomy house, up the stairs and into Andy's rear studio, and he said to me 'Just tell me what to paint.' I told him it would cost him fifty dollars.

Latow insisted that he write the cheque first. 'Andy sort of hovered and moaned in his miserly, dithering way,' according to Mann, but he eventually produced his Andy Warhol Enterprises chequebook scribbled a check for $50 to Latow, tore it off, and handed it to her.

'Give me a fabulous idea,' he said.

As Latow recalled, she asked him to think of the most common, everyday, instantly recognizable thing he could. Something like a Campbell's soup can - in fact, why not a Campbell's soup can? He could paint it in various permutations. His one question, Latow said, was 'How big?' Latow proposed that the measure her height - she was five feet, seven and a half inches - and told him, 'Make them as tall as me.'" (SC74)

According to Carey, "the next day Andy went out to the supermarket (because we went by the next day), and we came in, and had a case of every... of all the soups." (PS257) This would mean that Warhol started the Soup Cans (or at least preparation for them) on 24 November, the day after the Latow cheque.

Carey's account of the evening did not mention that Warhol was concerned about the size of the paintings, as Latow mentioned, and Warhol's most famous Campbell's Soup Cans - the Ferus-style cans - were quite modest in size - 20" x 16". Otherwise, her account generally agrees with Carey's account except that she doesn't mention the money idea or at least is not quoted about the money idea. She also doesn't mention that Warhol didn't like soup, as Mann suggested. Mann's claim that Warhol hated soup also conflicted with other accounts by people who knew him. One of Warhol's assistants during the 1950s, Vito Giallo, recalls that Warhol always had soup for lunch. According to Giallo, Warhol's favourite flavour of soup was tomato which he (Warhol) would eat while "watching TV at the same time." Giallo recalls that Warhol's mother "was there to make soup and a sandwich. Lettuce, tomato sandwiches, very simple." (UW20) Yet, Gerard Malanga, Warhol's art assistant of the '60s does not mention soup in his description of the typical lunch that he and Warhol would sometimes have together. Gerard recalls, "After work was completed, we would go over to Andy's house. The firehouse [Warhol's studio before the Factory] 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." (GMW32) Regardless of Warhol's eating habits as an adult, however, Warhol's brothers have confirmed that as children their mother would regularly serve soup and a sandwich for lunch and that Andy got to pick the flavour of the soup. (GI7) Andy's oldest brother Paul Warhola recalls, "Everything that he [Warhol] did actually was part of his life from the time he was a youngster. Mother always served Campbell's soup... she always had a good supply. Andy was fond of chicken noodle, you know, chicken rice." (CP)

Andy Warhol's Mother

Warhol's mother provides another possibility for the inspiration behind the Soup Cans, but not necessarily because she served soup for lunch. In a 1985 interview for the Face magazine in London, Warhol said that flowers that his mother made out of tin cans when he was a child was the reason he did his first "tin-can" paintings.

Andy Warhol Face Interview

The Face interview (March 1985, No. 59) by Fiona Russell Powell and David Yarritu

From the Face interview:

David Yarritu:

"I heard that your mother used to make these little tin flowers and sell them to help support you in the early days."

Andy Warhol:

"Oh God, yes, it's true, the tin flowers were made out of those fruit cans, that's the reason why I did my first tin-can paintings...You take a tin-can, the bigger the tin-can the better, like the family size ones that peach halves come in, and I think you cut them with scissors. It's very easy and you just make flowers out of them. My mother always had lots of cans around, including the soup cans." (FA50)

Del Monte Peach Halves

The mention of "peach halves" is interesting because an early tin-can painting by Warhol is of a can of Del Monte Peach Halves which the Warhol catalogue raisonné has attributed to 1961, along with an early (possibly the earliest) Campbell's Soup Can painting, noting that "the borders in both works isolate the can as a discrete, depicted object rather than as an image embedded in an ad" which anticipates "the approach that Warhol was to follow in all of his Campbell's Soup Can series." (RN041) It would not have been a huge step for Warhol to go from painting a Del Monte can to painting a Campbell's soup can without depending on Muriel Latow to come up with the idea.

During his lifetime Warhol was rarely asked about the origin of the Soup Cans in interviews and there is little mention of the paintings in the pseudo-autobiographical account of his life during the '60s, POPism: The Warhol Sixties. Although Popism was written in the first-person as though it was Warhol telling the tale of "the Warhol sixties" it was actually authored by his secretary Pat Hackett, working from taped interviews and independent research. Presumably, however, Warhol approved the final book before it went to publication. Although it doesn't cover the origin of the Soup Cans it does mention the origin of the money paintings. But is it the Carey version - i.e. that Muriel Latow came up with the idea at the same time she came up with the soup can idea - or the de Antonio version - that Eleanor Ward promised to give Warhol a show in exchange for painting her two dollar bill - that is included in the book? Hackett/Warhol appear to refer to both versions.


Pat Hackett writing as Andy Warhol in Popism:

"... De [Antonio] arranged to meet Eleanor at my studio one evening in '62. We sat around talking for an hour or so, having a few drinks, until De said bluntly, 'Well, come on Eleanor. The point of all this, after all, is are you going to give Andy a show or not, because he's very good and he should have one.' She took out her wallet and looked through the bill compartment. Then she held up a two-dollar bill and said, 'Andy, if you paint me this, I'll give you a show.'" (POP24)

Earlier in the book Hackett, writing as Warhol, gives the reason for Warhol starting his money paintings in general:

Pat Hackett, writing as Andy Warhol in Popism:

"It was on one of those evenings when I'd asked around ten or fifteen people for suggestions that finally one lady friend of mine asked me the right question: 'Well what do you love most?' That's how I started painting money." (POP18)

Popism appears to claim that there were two separate events; the One Dollar Bills were suggested at a different time by a different person than the Two Dollar Bills. Yet the catalogue raisonné attributes both types of paintings to the same period - March - April 1962. They assume that a drawing of the front of a two dollar bill and the back of a one dollar bill is the original drawing for the money paintings which Warhol probably produced after he spoke to Tibor Press about the possibility of doing a silk screen of money, only to be told that he couldn't use images of real money. Carey backs up the cat. rais. point of view when he concludes his recollection of the Latow evening by saying, "So that's how the idea of the money painting because he did... he did money paintings and soup paintings. I don't remember which he did first, but, I think they were done at the same time. And the first ones were done by hand; they were hand-stenciled. And, then, in order to do them faster, then, he started the...the screen, but the early ones were all done by hand..." (PS257) He doesn't refer to the one dollar bills and the two dollar bills as separate ideas, he just refers to the money paintings in general.

Andy Warhol Interviews

In the few interviews in which Warhol is specifically asked why he started painting soup cans, he skirts around the issue or reverts to the stock explanation that he painted the soup cans because he always had soup for lunch. When asked by Glenn O'Brien in 1977 for High Times magazine whether he really did the soup can paintings "because you had it for lunch every day," Warhol responds, "Oh yeah, I had Campbell's soup every day for lunch for about 20 years. And a sandwich." (KG242) In a 1962 interview for a minor art journal, Art Voices, Warhol was asked "What do your rows of Campbell soup cans signify?" He answers "They're things I had when I was a child." (KG5) But Warhol's answer only goes so far. He may very well have had soup every day, but why put something on canvas just because you happen to eat it often? Why would painting a picture of something that one had for lunch everyday be considered art? If Warhol had soup and a sandwich for lunch, why choose the soup over the sandwich and why represent it as a pre-packaged can of soup rather than as a bowl of soup? Why paint 32 different flavours of soup, each on a separate canvas?

The "nothingness" of a soup can

Ronald Tavel, the scriptwriter of Warhol's early films, gave another reason for Warhol's Campbell's Soup Can paintings. He recalled that "When a friend of Andy's, Aaron Fine, dying of cancer in September 1962, inquired why he chose to depict the Campbell's soup can, Andy answered, 'I wanted to paint nothing. I was looking for something that was the essence of nothing, and that was it.'" (SH) Tavel's comment is similar to a comment made by Warhol's colleague of the 1950s, Bert Greene, who said in 1978 that "After Andy began his Pop Art, Aaron [Fine] asked him why he was doing it, and Andy said, 'It's the synthesis of nothingness,' which is, of course, the Dada reply."(PS338-9) The ordinariness of the soup cans emphasized the "nothingness" of the subject matter. A soup can was a soup can was a soup can.

The soup can as a nondescript "thing" - a thing which represented nothing - was backed up by Warhol, himself, in an interview he gave to Benjamin H.D. Buchloh in 1985. During a discussion of repetition in Warhol's works, Warhol says that "Everybody was finding a different thing. I had done the comic strips, and then I saw Roy Lichtenstein's little dots, and they were so perfect. So I thought I could not do the comic strips, because he did them so well... I was looking for a thing." Warhol's "thing" was a soup can. (Benjamin H.D. Buchloh, "An Interview with Andy Warhol" in Annette Michelson ed. October Files 2: Andy Warhol, p. 120)

Jean-Paul Sartre

The concept of "nothingness" had been circulating for some time in the United States through the popularisation of Zen Buddhism and the philosophy of existentialism. Existentialism was embraced by both the beat movement of the 50s and the hippie movement of the 60s. Jean Paul Sartre's existential tome, Being and Nothingness, was first published in the U.S. in 1956 although existentialism had certainly reached the U.S. before then. Sartre had done a highly publicized lecture tour of the U.S. during the 1940s (covered by Time magazine) when Warhol was still a student. In January 1946 Sartre lectured at Carnegie Hall, presented by the editor of View magazine, Charles Henri Ford. (ASL2) The same year, Ford's sister Ruth appeared in a Broadway production of Jean Paul Sartre's No Exit which featured sets and lighting by Frederick Kiesler who also designed Peggy Guggenheim's surrealist Art of This Century Gallery. Charles Henri and Warhol would later become friends after being introduced during a party at Ruth Ford's home during the early 60s. Nathan Gluck, another of Warhol's commercial art assistants of the 1950s recalled selling a large collection of Ford's View magazine to Warhol although it's not clear whether he did this before or after the Soup Cans. (PS322) Although the magazine initially focused on Surrealism it also included existential writers such as Sartre. Art dealer John Bernard Myers recalled an incident in 1946 in which Ford proclaimed that Surrealism was on its way out. When Meyers asked him what was "on its way in," Ford replied "Existentialism, honey, existentialism." (See AbEx Timeline here and here.)

John Cage

The concept of "nothingness" was also being promulgated by the musician John Cage who had briefly studied under D.T. Suzuki and had been lecturing on Zen concepts of "nothingness" to students, artists and musicians since the 1940s, including a "Lecture on Nothing" presented at the Abstract Expressionists' hangout, The Club in c. 1949/50. (RG) Although Warhol probably never attended The Club, he was familiar with the downtown art scene as he had tried unsuccessfully in 1952/3 to join the Tanager Gallery on East 10th Street. Cage also taught at The New School in New York during 1956 - 58 and although the classes were geared toward musicians, many artists were known to attend, including Allan Kaprow.

Warhol also claimed to have met Cage in Pittsburgh where Cage had done a number of lectures and performances during the forties - see "Notes on John Cage, Erik Satie's Vexations and Andy Warhol's Sleep." But even if Warhol had not met Cage in Pittsburgh, he would have been familiar with him through Emile de Antonio who produced several Cage concerts during the 1950s, including a landmark concert at Manhattan's town hall on May 15, 1958 which de Antonio produced with Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns under the name "Impressarios Inc." Although Warhol did not befriend de Antonio until late 1959 (see "Emile de Antonio"), after the town hall concert by Cage, it is likely that Cage's name would have come up in their conversations about art and artists, particularly because of Cage's friendship with Johns and Rauschenberg. Warhol was known to admire Johns' work and in October 1962, would do a series of silkscreened portraits of Robert Rauschenberg. (RN257) (See "When did Andy Warhol meet John Cage?")

Jasper Johns

In 1961, prior to painting the Campbell's Soup Cans, Warhol had purchased a Jasper Johns' drawing of a light bulb and three Johns' lithographs - Black Flag and two Targets. (SC57) One could argue that Warhol's Soup Cans were, in effect, his version of Johns' Flags - both being American icons although of a slightly different nature. Johns' 1960 sculpture of Ballantine Ale cans (Painted Bronze) has also been seen as a possible inspiration for Warhol's Schlitz Cans, attributed to early 1962 in the cat. rais., based on "the use of pencil and of blocks of unmodulated colour" which "relate them to certain paintings of early 1962." (RN100) The cat. rais. notes that the subject matter of Warhol's Schlitz Cans, which he painted around the same time as some of his Soup Cans, "might allude to Johns' Painted Bronze." (RN100) But whereas Johns' work retained a painterly aspect, Warhol's paintings looked like the real thing. As Lucy R. Lippard pointed out in 1966, "by 1961... [Jasper Johns'] cans looked like the harbingers of a full-fledged trend," but by 1962 they "looked like antiques in comparison with the newly emerged Pop Art. For the ale cans were clearly hand-painted, and in no way did they attempt to reproduce exactly the commercial labels, or even the exact size and shape of the actual cans; still more significant, they were on a bronze base - set apart as art." Lippard continues, "Their [Johns' cans] painterly surface rids them of the newly minted mass-produced aura typical of Pop... Pop objects determinedly forgo the uniqueness acquired by time. They are not yet worn or left over. Every Campbell's soup can looks like every other Campbell's soup can..."(LU77-8)

KPFK interview

Warhol hinted at another reason for choosing the soups as subject matter during a 1963 radio interview for KPFK conducted by Ruth Hirschman. In that interview Warhol indicated that the soup cans did not have a symbolic influence and were chosen randomly.

From the transcript of the KPFK radio broadcast, autumn 1963:

Ruth Hirschman: "One of the things that I've heard most discussion about, especially in relation to your work, is the question where do you get your themes from? The Campbell's soup show showed here, and now, of course, the Elvis Presley show; and watching people move around the Ferus Gallery, especially art instructors from colleges who are trying to explain it to their students, and they usually talk in terms of social significance - this is the - this is an aspect of our culture that he's painting - would you go along with that? Do you consciously think of like 'What is the symbol of our culture?' when you did the Campbell soup show?"

Andy Warhol: "Uh, no."

Ruth Hirschman: "You don't?"

Andy Warhol: "No."

Ruth Hirschman: "Are they simply objects that move you?"

Andy Warhol: "Yes."

Ruth Hirschman: "Andy they're chosen at random."

Andy Warhol: "Yes." (KG30)


The description of the soup cans as "chosen at random" is reminiscent of the Dada movement of the early twentieth century in which "chance" or randomness was brought into play in the creation of works of art. Georges Hugnet describes such an artistic experiment by the Dada artist Jean (Hans) Arp:

Georges Hugnet [from "The Dada Spirit in Painting" (1932/34)]:

"... it seems fitting to mention some of Arp's experiments which were of far-reaching importance because they were in line with activities that were later to play a large part in the theory of prospecting in the land of the unconscious. Each morning, whether inspired or not, Arp repeated the same drawing, and so obtained a series showing variations which indicated the curves of automatism. He also experimented with chance, putting on a piece of cardboard pieces of paper that he had cut out at random and then coloured; he placed the scraps coloured side down and then shook the cardboard; finally he would paste them to the cardboard just as they had fallen." (RD134)

Nathan Gluck recalled that Warhol's first show at the Loft Gallery in New York in 1954 consisted of crumbled pieces of paper that Warhol dropped upon the floor. Gluck recalls, "Andy had taken paper. I can't remember if he drew on it or what, and, then, he would fold it every which way, and they were just stuck around on the floor... I remember just: 'Oh crumpled paper! God! Andy, do you think anybody will buy that..." (PS329) Gluck could not recall whether the papers were thrown or placed on the floor and the impression one is left with is that the papers were left on the floor randomly in a Dada fashion rather than in neatly arranged patterns.

Were Warhol's Soup Cans a modern expression of the Dada concepts of randomness and chance? The new art covered in Life magazine was often compared to Dada (including in Life magazine, itself, as already noted) and prior to coming up with the term "Pop," the work of artists like Oldenburg and Rosenquist was being referred to as "neo-Dada." It would have been difficult for an artist during the fifties and early sixties not to be familiar with the concepts of chance and randomness. The Abstract Expressionists had experimented with chance in the form of automatism or automatic painting in their quest toward representing universal concepts of truth and beauty abstractly during the 40s. John Cage composed music using chance techniques and lectured extensively on the subject during the 40s, 50s and 60s - including at the Subjects of the Artist School, The Club and the New School. (CW47/JC197) Cage's most famous piece, 4'33", featured a pianist sitting down at the piano without playing a note while the random sounds of the environment became the composition. In other pieces Cage used found objects as instruments during his compositions. During the KPFK interview quoted above, Taylor Mead, who was with Warhol during the interview, summed up Cage as "an artist for technicians, for freeing you technically maybe, to wig out on anything you feel like, bongos or piano wires or alarm clocks or things..." Did Warhol answer "Yes" to the KPFK interviewer when she asked if his Soup Cans were chosen randomly because he wanted his Soup Can paintings to reflect the Dada concepts of randomness and chance in a similar way as Cage's music and theories?

The Dada artist Marcel Duchamp also experimented with chance through works like 3 stoppages étalon (3 Standard Stoppages) and used found objects as his readymades. Both Warhol's work and his persona have been linked to Duchamp who tended to give interviews that rivaled Warhol's in their degree of ambiguity and humour. From 23 May to 12 September, 2010 The Warhol museum hosted an exhibition, "Twisted Pair," which focused on the similarities between the two artists. By the time of his death in 1987, Warhol owned at least eighteen works by Duchamp, including a replica of Duchamp's Fountain readymade, as well as a replica of In Advance of the Broken Arm, two editions of La Boite en Valise, Variation on the Optical Disc No. 6, Feuille de Vigne Femelle, five Rotoreliefs, and a variety of drawings and etchings. (AE) Warhol also filmed Duchamp for three Screen Tests and, according to POPism, had at one time planned to make a film of 24 hours in the life of Duchamp. (AD65-6)

Both Warhol and Duchamp's art could be described as a sort of anti-art. Duchamp's Fountain (judged the single most influential work of art of the 20th century in 2004) was a signed urinal. If a urinal or a painting of a soup can could be art, than anything could be art. The concept was more important than the image. In Duchamp's words, "what interests you is the concept that wants to put fifty Campbell soup cans on a canvas" rather than the cans themselves. In contrast to the pre-Pop art movement of Abstract Expressionism with its abstract representations of universal concepts of truth and beauty, Warhol's Soup Can paintings seemed to be purposely (and ironically) meaningless. The flavour of the soup might have varied but, as Lippard noted, "every Campbell's soup can" appeared to be similar to "every other Campbell's soup can." Even if Warhol did not have Dada in mind when he painted his soup cans, the paintings certainly reflected a Dada sense of irony.

The difference between Warhol's Soup Cans and Duchamp's readymades, however, was that Warhol represented an object on canvas whereas Duchamp exhibited the actual object as art. When Warhol put his soup cans on canvas, he worked from images of a soup can rather than the real thing. The Andy Warhol Catalogue Raisonné has identified three sources for Warhol's Soup Cans - photographs of real cans taken by Warhol's ex-lover Edward Wallowitch; imagery taken from a Campbell's magazine ad; and a logo from the stationary of the Campbell's soup company. (RN) Of particular interest are the Wallowitch photographs. It has been assumed that Warhol came up with the idea first and then had Wallowitch take the photos. But what it if happened the other way round? Could Wallowitch have been working on still-life photographs using commonplace objects such as soup cans prior to Warhol using the idea himself?

It is ultimately impossible to come up with a definitive answer as to why Warhol painted his Campbell's Soup Cans. It's possible that Latow suggested the cans in the first place, but it was Warhol who chose to accept her suggestion. Warhol's stock answer - that he had soup everyday - was not much of an answer at all as it did not explain why eating something everyday entitled it to become a work of art. Were the soup cans chosen as subject matter because they were "recognizable to almost everyone" as Latow supposedly suggested or were they chosen as a commercial icon that was as American as Jasper Johns' Flag? Were they random images representing "the synthesis of nothingness" or were they simply reflecting the artistic trend at the time of using commonplace objects or found imagery as subject matter? A soup can was a soup can was a soup can - or was it? Regardless of why he chose soup cans as subject matter, Warhol - by representing something as ordinary as a soup can on a canvas - demonstrated that "at bottom, the ordinary is not ordinary; it is extraordinary."

by Gary Comenas (2003, 2010, 2019, 2020, 2022)

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