Birthdays 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.
While 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 harbors a sense of existential dread just beneath its banal surface, simultaneously blocking and calling to mind disaster, specifically Cold War apocalypse.
To 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.
Returning to 32 Campbell’s Soup Cans, the work does not seem to harbor 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 flavor 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 bill.
But 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 longtime 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.
As 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 colors 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.”
Campbell’s connections to Cold War destruction during this period was only solidified by its appearance on shelves in photos of fallout shelters in Life 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 harbored 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.
Featured Image credit: Warhol’s 32 Campbell’s Soup Cans (1962). Maurizio Pesce, CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.