American contemporary art began on July 9th 1962 when a Los Angeles dealer named Irving Blum unveiled an exhibition of a series of small paintings of Campbell’s tinned soup.
There were 32 in total, each painted individually and distinguished only by their differing flavours, including black bean, cream of mushroom and tomato. The red-and-white tins – an icon of American comfort food – were instantly recognisable. From a distance, they looked identical. To heighten this impression, Blum hung them in four rows of eight to resemble supermarket shelves.
The artist, Andy Warhol, had spent the 1950s making advertising images. Working at the meeting point of commerce and media, he well understood the growing power of mass media and consumerism. At the end of the second world war America had emerged as the dominant Western power and was about to face down Nikita Khrushchev over the Cuban missile crisis. The US was churning out more cars, trains, steel and guns than any other nation on Earth.
But American art was still striving to establish itself. The most celebrated American painters – Edward Hopper, Mark Rothko, even Roy Lichtenstein – made no secret of their European influences. Warhol was the first to project himself as an unabashedly homespun artist.
Campbell’s condensed soup became the representative symbol of a new bottom-up cultural wave that chimed with the times and drew inspiration from comics, advertising, mass production and the movies. Warhol was in many ways more of a creative director than a fine-art painter; there was something of the production line in the way he worked. His studio was called The Factory.
Blum priced the soup-can paintings at $100 each, selling five. By the end of the run, he realised that they were more valuable as a complete series, so he bought back those he’d sold and offered Warhol $1,000 for the set. It turned out to be a shrewd investment. By the 1990s, Warhol’s work commanded the highest prices in the art world. In 1996 Blum sold the original “32 Campbell’s Soup Cans” to the Museum of Modern Art in New York for $15m.•
Andy Warhol is at Tate Modern, London, from March-Sept. “Warhol” by Blake Gopnik is out in February in the UK