J. Curley is Associate Professor of Modern and Contemporary
Art History at Wake Forest University. This essay was adopted
from his book A
Conspiracy of Images: Andy Warhol, Gerhard Richter, and the
Art of the Cold War (Yale University Press,
2013). Other publications can be viewed at https://wfu.academia.edu/JohnCurley.
This article was originally @OUPblog.
are complicated. They are cause for celebration but also remind
us that we are closer to death. Such duality would not have
been lost on Andy Warhol (1928-1987), an artist who strove throughout
his career to find images that could house such contradictory
notions. These mutual feelings of jubilation and morbidity would
have become especially apparent on Andy Warhol’s seventeenth
birthday on 6 August 1945, when the United States dropped a
nuclear bomb on Hiroshima, Japan. For the rest of his life,
Warhol shared his own birthday with the birth of the nuclear
age and the recognition of the potential for a human-engineered
global apocalypse. As the Cold War battle between the United
States and the Soviet Union heated up in the 1950s and early
1960s, fears of nuclear apocalypse became especially acute.
Warhol directly referenced nuclear weapons in a number of works
throughout his career -- most memorably in Red Explosion
from 1963, with over thirty silkscreen images of an atomic test
blast -- his most interesting explorations of the subject are
those that tackle the subject obliquely, even covertly. With
its deadpan, repeated depictions of one of the most basic American
consumer goods, 32
Campbell’s Soup Cans from 1962 is
just such a work. The work harbours a sense of existential dread
just beneath its banal surface, simultaneously blocking and
calling to mind disaster, specifically Cold War apocalypse.
understand how a can of soup is able to convey terror, we must
consider Warhol’s early commercial art experience. After
graduating from Carnegie Tech in 1948 with a degree in Pictorial
Design, he moved to New York. Warhol soon became a highly successful
illustrator, valued for his drawings for record covers, magazine
articles, and, most of all, advertisements. For instance, in
1955 he was hired to reinvigorate the image of I. Miller, an
upscale woman’s footwear company. Warhol’s drawn
advertisements appeared regularly in the New York Times
until 1957, each one thus visible to millions of readers. On
the whole, these ads appeared in the Sunday edition of the paper,
beneath the announcements of high society engagements and weddings.
With the wealthy brides helping to elevate the status of his
drawn shoes, the surrounding context for these drawings was
thus fundamental for their meaning and commercial impact. With
these repeated appearances in the same section of the newspaper,
Warhol would come to understand the interdependence of advertising
and editorial content -- how they work in tandem. And such lessons
from commercial art would continue to inform Warhol’s
work once he decided to become a fine artist around 1960.
to 32 Campbell’s Soup Cans, the work does not
seem to harbour any feelings of atomic dread; on the contrary,
some critics have viewed the work as celebrating an iconic American
brand. And it does not look like traditional art. Around this
time, Warhol said, “I want to be a machine,” and
this work attempts to deliver on that promise. Despite being
hand-painted, the canvases are nearly identical, save for the
variety of the flavour of soup (all thirty-two varieties available
in 1962). After a decade of the macho, emotionally-laden paintings
of Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, and others, Warhol wanted
to make art that avoided explicit displays of feeling. And seemingly
straightforward depictions of Campbell’s Soup cans fit
the cans nevertheless were deeply integrated into the dramas
of contemporary events. At least this is the impression we get
when flipping through the widely read and highly influential
Life magazine from the late 1950s and early 1960s.
The magazine was certainly the place where Warhol, a long-time
subscriber, gained familiarity with the Campbell’s brand.
If he came to understand, through his work for I. Miller, how
advertisements could work with editorial content (fancy shoes
among fancy brides), then perhaps Life taught him the
ways that ads also worked in marked contrast with their surroundings.
As media theorist Marshall McLuhan argued in 1964: “Ads
are news. What is wrong with them is that they are always good
news. In order to balance the effect and to sell good news,
it is necessary to have a lot of bad news.” Put simply,
stories about disasters, accidents, or violent wars help the
effectiveness of advertising products like Campbell’s.
such, during this period, Campbell’s advertising strategy
in Life depended on purchasing the page after that
week’s lead story or opposite the all-text editorial.
Campbell’s soup cans were thus silent media witnesses
to some of the period’s biggest events, many of which
concerned Cold War tensions: there’s a Campbell’s
ad marking the end of a long article on the Soviet launch of
the Sputnik satellite in 1957; another one is next to an editorial
from 1961 entitled “We Must Win the Cold War.” And
there are scores of other similar examples. With the advertisements’
bright colours and bold graphics, readers would have been hard-pressed
to maintain their focus on the adjacent news, reported in serious
black-and-white. In such layouts, Campbell’s became the
comfort food of the Cold War -- a warm, comforting distraction
in the face of stories about death and anxiety. And the repetition
of these constructions in Life, week after week, certainly
would have transformed a can of Campbell’s soup into a
highly charged object when Warhol chose to paint it in 1962.
Perceptive early viewers of the work picked up on just these
associative qualities of Warhol; an important critic from Art
News even noted that seeing Warhol’s work inspired
thoughts of “the
soup ad in Life magazine.”
and elsewhere. Even in Kurt Vonnegut’s darkly comic novel
Cat’s Cradle from 1963, the protagonist, when faced with
the end of the world, opens a can of soup from a fallout shelter.
Campbell’s Soup was a staple of the apocalypse. Other
consumer objects during the Cold War also harboured such duality.
For instance, during the famous “Kitchen Debate”
in 1959 the American Vice President Nixon and Soviet leader
Khrushchev argued over the force of rockets and the merits of
washing machines, all the while standing in a model American
kitchen. In 1945, Warhol’s birthday was suddenly and permanently
overshadowed by a mushroom cloud, and 32 Campbell’s
Soup Cans some seventeen years later demonstrates how everyday
objects also could not escape the bomb.