32 Soup Cans.
This is it. The beginning of Andy Warhol as we know him. Many might say that Warhol being so goddamned influential it might be the beginning of an era. Or, it seems to me less the Warhol era as much as Warhol was perhaps the best at reflecting it.
What an era.
Though emergent from the '60s, Warhol I think is more of an emblem of the Reagan '80s than a child of that other, more socially revolutionary decade. The Soup Cans, the Marilyns, the Maos, I can like or dislike these as much as the Mona Lisa at this point, or the logo for Coke or any of a hundred commercial jingles drilled into my head from a well-televised youth. If you close your eyes for too long, like Vonnegut’s Harrison Bergeron, some jingle will creep in if you give it time. “Give me a break, give me a break….”
Corporations and celebrity (from political to cinematic, they all got flattened by Warhol’s silkscreens into a Warhol), these are the two defining trends of the modern era. We can talk post-Modernism and Conceptualism, Reaganites and Thatcherites, Democrat or Republican, Christianity vs. Secularism, East vs. West, Capitalist America vs. the far-flung Communists, but all these binaries and dichotomies are simply flattened by the corporation and the celebrity, the two primary providers of bread and circus in far-flung empires mostly called these days multi-nationals.
Andy Warhol is the official painter of the last forty years. Art is a reflection of life according to some lights, and Warhol reflected it better than anybody, our vanity, our consumerism, our love affair with capitalism. America, this dynamic and hospitable place, this greedy and self-centered back-water, unavoidably (for now at least) the biggest economy in the world. The Abstract Expressionists were too messy, experimental, too individualistic in a way undefined by consumerism; they were maybe even in their way antagonistic to the defining orderly, conformist ethos of their time. Besides, Jackson Pollock’s paintings just don’t reproduce so well on a t-shirt. Warhol however was just right. It’s no surprise that he tops the art market; he flattered the corporate oligarchs by turning their banalities and faces into art.
Like the American brand of consumer-driven corporate hegemony, Pop art is a part of our DNA, a part of my self. I can just as easily hate that as I can hate who I am, an American born in the 20th century. These are American sins, as much a part of our national history as Thanksgiving and George Washington. As much the Europeans have never fully lived down their mercantilist and colonialist past, the US is likely never to live down its love affair with corporations, their dehumanizing tendencies and fast-and-loose attitude to welfare, the environment, and anything else that isn’t a quick profit.
But like all sins of the past, we can at least feel strange, maybe mildly embarrassed and perhaps endeavor to not be such greedy and arrogant toads. Not worship brands with such fealty. But then again, do the Italians feel embarrassed that all of their best artists for centuries were at the beck-and-call of vile and corrupt Church officials? Has the Frick ever apologized for its namesake murdering all those striking workers? At least the Catholics named their temples after saints.
It is alas not Warhol’s fault. He would have succeeded no matter what the era, it just so happened that it was our era and its powerbrokers were corporations and their leaders; instead of saints we had celebrities. Like capitalism, Warhol was clever about sucking the competition into itself. By contemporary standards, from prices to attendance-figures at museums, Andy Warhol is the greatest artist at the apex of our civilization, now seemingly in decline.
And that era began here in Los Angeles with the exhibition of these thirty-two paintings at Ferus Gallery. The anniversary which was celebrated to the day, July 9, of the original exhibition.
Here it is, Campbell soup in thirty-two varieties, exactly like our mothers used to make, or rather prepare. Factory-made, well-advertised, and endorsed even by high-culture.
That's what makes Warhol's Campell's Soup paintings, M'm! M'm! Good!