Warhol and Campbell’s Soup

Life imitating art imitating life:  Andy Warhol is doing Campbell’s Soup cans again.

This time, the Andy Warhol Foundation has licensed Warhol images for use on actual Campbell’s Soup cans, to recognize the 50th anniversary of Warhol’s first solo show — the Campbell’s Soup can canvases — at the Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles.  The new cans will be sold through Target.

It’s unclear to me what, exactly, is being licensed.  The LA Times story refers to cans that “mimic Warhol’s pop-art style.”  Style can be licensed?  (This reminds of Mencken’s joke about infant baptism:  Believe in it?  I’ve seen it done!)  The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette story offers a little more detail:  “The starting point, said [Michael Hermann, Director of Licensing for the Foundation], was to review all of Warhol’s Colored Soup Can paintings to find four images that worked well as a group and translated well as packaging. Then Campbell’s created labels derived from the original works.”  That makes a little more sense.  But the cans themselves (pictured above, from the LA Times) seem “Warholian” to me, rather than “Warhol.”

I’ve always understood that Warhol’s point was not that Campbell’s Soup can labels were art; rather, that the line between art (Warhol’s versions of the labels) and not (the labels themselves) was irretrievably blurry. It’s that little gap, where viewers are/were tricked into thinking one thing and then the other (because the canvases clearly are not reproductions of the labels, just like Warhol’s Brillo boxes were not real Brillo boxes), that was the point. And now Campbell’s and the Foundation have just gone full-on commercial. On a real soup can, the labels aren’t art at all. They’re just part of the marketing. Warhol isn’t making a claim (the Warhol images aren’t making a claim, to be more precise); he’s just selling soup. Would Warhol himself approve?  Who knows.  Since the Foundation controls the rights to his work, would it matter if he did not?  Likely not.  That’s my $0.02.

The long-standing rumor – perhaps apocryphal – is the Campbell’s Soup actually sued Andy Warhol in connection with the original paintings, then reconsidered and dropped the claim. The Post-Gazette story above tells a different tale; it refers to Campbell’s Soup was *thinking* about suing but backed off before taking action. This letter, apparently from 1964, suggests that the Campbell team got religion pretty quickly.

One thought on “Warhol and Campbell’s Soup

  1. And just think how confusing the issue would be if we had robust moral rights protections in the United States.

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