The first time you push through a scrum of tourist flashbulbs to peer through bulletproof glass at the Mona Lisa, you’ll see a painting whose image is so familiar that it may well disappoint. Behind that glass does remain an object that, if you peer through its nimbus of fame, you can see. But what if fame were the very subject of the painting? That seamless, perfect fantasy of the other that the age of mechanical reproduction has so gaudily inflated? In other words, is it really possible to see a Warhol?
In 1962, Andy Warhol showed 32 Campbell’s soup can paintings at the Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles. At a glance, each small, red and white, screen-printed canvas was almost exactly the same as the others, but they weren’t quite interchangeable, because there was exactly one for each of Campbell’s available varieties, and cream of mushroom isn’t much use when you’re in the mood for chicken noodle. In retrospect, the suite looks like a collective portrait of a brand, but it was really only a portrait of the branding–not the idea, that is, but the design that carried it. Only when the Warhol soup can itself became an idea–an idea with a monetary value none too strictly related to its referent–did he really arrive at the eternal, disembodied perfection of the infinitely reproducible, cornucopically available American brand.
Fifty years on, Warhol still makes news, not for what he did, but for what it’s worth: another 1962 soup can, not from the series, was sold for $11.7 million in 2006, his Green Car Crash sold for $71.7 million in 2007; recently a Warhol changed hands for $38 million (Jerry Saltz, reasonably enough, sees the current prices as a bubble, but for my part, I suspect that Warhol has become real estate, and mortgage crises notwithstanding, in the long run real estate never goes down.) Warhol’s iconic and abstractedly singular soup can, standing in for his whole oeuvre–which, according to the artist himself, stood for nothing more than what it looked like–can now buy any number of interesting conversations about the mechanics of the art economy, the nature of celebrity and the collective subjectivity of the act of perception. All of which would make it seem as if the very last thing a show of Warhol soup cans could be about, at this point, is the paintings themselves.
In 1965, Warhol made a series of 20 paintings in which he pruned his 32 varieties down to the simple tomato–not accidentally the most fungible of soups–but replaced the Campbell’s yellow, white, and red label with a rainbow of tropical colors. Nineteen of these paintings are still extant, and 12 of the 19 have been assembled on the white-and-aubergine walls of L&M Arts on 78th Street.
It may feel like an artificial exercise, but let’s try peering at these paintings through the nimbus. Hand painted in layered blocks beneath a final screen-print, in either white or black, of the can’s outline and the highlights of the words “Campbell’s” and “SOUP,” they use the given soup can as a medium for delicate thought experiments about color combination. A green and red can with “Campbell’s” in off-white could be a real soup can, though it isn’t; an orange and green one might be a real can from Northern Europe; a blue and purple one, only in a dream. One painting does give us a red and white can, but the red is faded, the white is a sickly pea-yellow, and the background is a bright blue-green. In two cases, by keeping a the top red and coloring the can’s lower half blue, Warhol turns tomato soup into an allusion to Quaker Oats.
These cans are also, in their way, far more insidious than the 1962 set. Those first paintings, with their ostensibly slavish reproduction of real labels, located their irony in the space between the canvas and the viewer, and dissolved the power of the brand from the inside out. The colored soup cans, in contrast, smuggle the brand’s Platonic shape past your defenses under a dazzling camouflage of superficial variation. The colors are various, the screen-printed outlines are not always exactly in place, the yellow medal is simplified, and the fleurs-de-lis on the bottom of the can blur as they march toward the edges. They’re so pretty you can almost forget what you’re looking at–but what’s given is unquestionably accepted as a given.
If we can do nothing else by peering through the nimbus, we can at least refuse to take this soup can as a given. Of course, another thing that might occur to you in front of the Mona Lisa is that even if you succeed in having an authentically personal experience of it, you’re unlikely to think anything about it that hasn’t been thought a million times before. But using predictability to provide the illusion of a shared experience is, after all, exactly the point of a branded soup can, and that is exactly what you’re looking at.