Richard Weisman’s Warhols

I saw my first Andy Warhol Campbell’s Soup Can in France at the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Nice. It was in the fall of 2000 and I remember thinking "What makes this so great?" I was looking at a well crafted enlargement of a Campbell’s Soup can in silkscreen, reminiscent of a magazine advertisement. Contrary to what I had expected, I felt detached from the image and puzzled by the experience. Several years later and armed with further knowledge of the context of the works and the man who made them, I approached the Campbell’s Soup Series and still felt a detachment. What a let down! However, I could not stop thinking about Andy Warhol. Was Warhol’s art really the masterpiece or was the real masterpiece the man?

Andy Warhol was arguably the most prolific and elusive artist of the twentieth century. He was an award winning illustrator who confronted the art world with appropriated images of pop culture beginning in the 1960’s. To his admirers, "[H]e was a genius, whose brash, provocative paintings and movies epitomized the prevailing cultural and moral spirit of his time." (Bourdon 9). His detractors thought him an opportunist who rode a wave of commercialism to success. Plato would surely have seen him as the ultimate model of the artist as imitator. Not only did Warhol reproduce what he saw around him, but he also reveled in repeating those images over and over again.

An excellent case in point is the Campbell’s Soup Series on display at the WSU Museum of Art. Warhol did many variations of the soup cans, but those on display in the Richard Weisman collection are identical images except for the names of the different soup flavors. Silk screened in red, black, silver and gold on white paper, they are familiar and predictable. The clean lines and symmetry of the cans and their labels are aesthetically pleasing and yet unremarkable. Because they are silk screened onto paper, their surfaces appear very flat and smooth. There are no brush strokes or elements of style that can be attributed to the artist. In fact, there is nothing within these paintings to suggest that Andy Warhol created these prints. With no evidence of the artist you cannot help but accept that this work was not about the artist but about the visual image of the Campbell’s Soup can.

Again and again Warhol made this point as he created Big Campbell’s Soup Can, 19, 100 Campbell’s Soup Cans, 200 Campbell’s Soup Cans, Soup Can with Can Opener and many more. Marcel Duchamp explained, "If you take a Campbell’s 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’s Soup cans on a canvas." (Bourdon 88).

However, I would have to agree with Jasper Johns who once said about his own painting Three Flags, 1958, "The painting of a flag is always about a flag, but it is not more about a flag than it is about a brushstroke or about a color or about the physicality of the paint, I think." (Walther 309). Likewise then we might consider that a silkscreen of a Campbell’s Soup can is about a Campbell’s Soup can, but not more about a Campbell’s Soup can than about it’s formal elements. Which leads us to question, can a thought be so provocative that it becomes the art? Was Warhol trying to elicit the distanced observation of the viewer that Immanuel Kant spoke of in his discourses on beauty? (Freeland 14).

I definitely felt the distance but I’m afraid I failed to enjoy the experience because I didn’t feel the pleasant effects of my minds ‘free play’ suggested by Kant’s theory. I put together a puzzle of Campbell’s Soup = home and comfort in a can. I found it interesting. I saw the skill involved and I understood the potential of the idea but the image still felt flat. I’m still not sure if Warhol intended the Campbell’s Soup image to mean anything. I honestly wonder if Warhol had a compulsive disorder which caused him to repeat images that were familiar to him. Perhaps his brain was slightly different because he enjoyed the New York party and drug scene. As you can see, even if Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup cans fail to visually engage me, Warhol the artist will continue to pique my curiosity.

Regardless of my opinions, I can concede that these were important works because they made people think about their art viewing experience. They also presented another avenue for artists to explore. The contexts of our world have changed since then and perhaps you had to be there at the time these images were first shown to fully appreciate their impact. Nonetheless, Warhol’s vast body of work revealed him to be an astute, distanced observer of life. He related what he saw in a calculated and skillful visualization. He was an eccentric and thoughtful craftsman with a personal image even larger than his works. Yet for me, when regarding the Campbell’s Soup cans it is almost impossible to see the art behind the artist, Andy Warhol.



Works Cited
Bourdon, David. Warhol. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1989.
Freeland, Cynthia. But is it art? Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.
Walther, Ingo F. Walther, ed. Art of the 20th Century. New York: Taschen, 2002.

by Kathi Miller
Expected graduation: December 2003
Major: Fine Arts

I've recently returned to school after a long absence. Writing numerous papers has been the most challenging aspect of my return. However, this particular paper was easier for me than most I've written. I did extra research because I wanted to know more about the subject. Research added to my understanding but more importantly, by the time I sat down to write, I had a strong opinion and I wrote more precisely what I thought and felt

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