I wanted to paint nothing. I was looking for something that was the essence of nothing, and that was it.
—Andy Warhol on why he chose to paint soup cans
If these musings prove nothing more than the paranoid ramblings of someone who finds poetry in grocery lists and weeps at the sight of octogenarians in matching hats, then so be it, but... something is off about this soup. There are consumer choices enough without worrying if one’s groceries are accurately reflecting some elevated cultural sensibility. Do you realize how many different kinds of tomatoes you can buy now? Organic, fair trade certified, “on the vine” etc. Those tomatoes are genetically modified to match my school’s colors. These tomatoes are mp3s. These tomatoes have big butts and gaze out seductively from the shelves like a cheerleader pyramid; the accompanying signage reads, these aren’t your grandmother’s tomatoes...
These tomatoes are official Andy Warhol merchandise.
The abject uselessness of the limited-edition Campbell’s tomato soup cans that ostensibly vanished from Target stores in just a few days is an interesting example—perhaps even the apotheosis—of the kind that can be produced from surplus cultural cache. I would have like to at least looked at one of the things, as the back of the label seems to have a special message from the Warhol Foundation (who authorized the whole thing, adding the special spice of officiality—the cans were purportedly made in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the first exhibition of 32 Campbell’s Soup Cans at Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles) but when I casually asked about them while shopping for cheap underwear and 10 cubic-foot packages of toilet paper, the Target clerk threw me shade like a seasoned big city shopgirl. “They’re so gone,” he said. “People were buying them by the case.”
So where are they now? Stacked in cupboards across the country, patiently awaiting botulism? The most absurd thing a body could do with them, oddly enough, is to display them like art.
The celebration of consumer culture in fine art was a revelation, but we are sadly, conclusively, past the time frame for such an enterprise to not have a cynical undertone. The imagery Warhol appropriated from mass consumer culture has been reverse-appropriated and is being sold back to us, marketed with the unverifiable signifiers of value that attempt to obfuscate the unavoidable “mass” of consumer culture today. Special edition! Limited quantity! Only 1.2 million made! We’re buying it because it’s such a deal, but it’s not democratizing Warhol so much as exclusivizing Target.
Pop art, in all its glitz and accessibility, is sort of begging to be merchandised, but it usually takes the form of plastering the imagery of an artwork onto an existing product with an existing function wholly separate from the subject matter that adorns it, not turning the subject matter itself into the product. If the Warhol Foundation authorized the sale of half-rotten bananas as an official Andy Warhol x Chiquita collaboration, the incongruence might be slightly more apparent, but canned foodstuffs are so small and cheap and hardy the strangeness of it is going largely unnoticed. Bemused comparisons to Keith Haring sex toys and Nars cosmetics’ Warhol -themed eyeshadow color palettes are being mentioned, but the Target x Warhol collaboration is more conceptually akin to the the ill fated Thomas Kinkade-themed housing developments, only one of which is still inhabited, even though living inside a painting is a common horror-movie trope to indicate the characters are trapped in a kind of purgatory.
I can’t pinpoint the moment I first saw Warhol’s Mao printed on a t-shirt, or keep track of the countless tattoos I’ve spotted of his spotted banana, but I do recall finally breaching the perimeter of the house of a boy I liked and noticing he had shower curtains printed with the acid-colored soup cans in his bathroom. From then on I disliked the boy and remained ambivalent toward Warhol. If I’m missing something, it might have to do with being exposed to his merchandise before I was exposed to his art; thus I judged him by his audience rather than his work.
The notion that “Andy would have loved that” is not impossible—he’s dead, all things are possible—but despite Warhol’s alternating reticence and contradictions regarding the impulses behind his work, this project undermines what made the series ironic in the first place. “Everyone who buys a Campbell’s soup can gets the same Campbell’s soup. Whether you’re indigent or a millionaire.”
The “real” cans of soup won’t hold up so well as the paintings, nor will they conceivably appreciate in value, despite the naïve cash-cow dreams of so many eBayers. Once houses and food become art, they are no longer fit to live in, or eat.
(Image: Campbell's Soup Limited Edition Cans, Courtesy Campbell's Soup Company.)