Andy Warhol and the Can That Sold The World
Before Andy Warhol, a Campbell's soup can was just a Campbell's soup can: a mass-produced fact, a container of processed nourishment. After Andy Warhol, a Campbell's soup can would become both a symbol of the banality of modern life and a demonstration of how the most quotidian of objects can be repurposed--and exhaustively re-commodified--as art objects. The "Campbell's Soup Cans" series of paintings helped create "a pertly designed window into the abyss, in a sense, erasing the sense of spirituality that earlier generations had associated with art," author Gary Indiana writes in Andy Warhol and the Can That Sold the World, his thoughtful look at the late Pop artist's defining work. "The viewer was obliged to confront glut; a ceaseless proliferation of objects for sale, objects that defined modern lives as quanta."
After an eccentric stretch of study at Carnegie Institute of Technology, Warhol moved to New York in 1949, soon enjoying a celebrated career as a sought-after advertising illustrator while incrementally easing himself into the city's abstract expressionism-dominated art community. By the time the soup cans appeared in the early 1960s, he had produced and shown reams of homoerotic and non-quite-commercial fine-art pieces, which "were given perfunctory attention, when noted at all, in the art press," Indiana writes.
The soup can paintings didn't fare much better at first; they would acquire significance over time. Stark, plain, and ambiguous, the paintings baffled much more than they beguiled, empty visual vessels that forced the observer to imbue them with meaning. While the series referred back to Warhol's upbringing--the thriving factories in Pittsburgh, where he grew up, and the countless cans of Campbell's his "overbearing and hypercritical" mother served him for lunch as a child--the paintings project the same affect-free detachment that eventually colored his public persona and the for-sale artistic facsimiles that subsequently became his calling cards. In a larger, more transformative sense, reality effectively became a valid basis for art, and the artist was given license to act less as a prism than as a living mirror--an idea that continues to shape, inform, and arguably damn the mediums of film, television, music, and art today.
The Can That Sold the World is not a Warhol biography in the traditional sense. Indiana doesn't mention the Velvet Underground at all, and refers to Valerie Solanas to explain his subject's retreat from the entourage of crazies, drug fiends, and anti-stars who surrounded him at the Factory. Warhol's subsequent experimental artistry and conceptual decline--as a reclusive, toadying silkscreener to the morally-if-not-financially bankrupt--is presented to underline the seminal nature of his original innovation-qua-violation. Yet in narrowing his focus, the author locates and captures Warhol's essence.