Limited-edition Andy Warhol-inspired Campbell’s soup cans. Courtesy Campbell’s Soup Company, Camden.

ANDY WARHOL, Campbell’s Soup II, 1969, screenprint on woven paper, 88.9 × 58.4 cm. Copyright the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts. Courtesy the
Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh.

The Little Can That Could

Also available in:  Chinese  Arabic

Some company recently was interested in buying my “aura.”

– Andy Warhol

The prodigious prince of Pop art, Andy Warhol is often described as a visionary who fused high art with low commercial product. Initially dismissed by Time magazine as a “huckster of hype,” Warhol had a preternatural understanding of the power of both consumer psychology and public relations in the 1960s. His influence was seminal in the development of appropriation art, as well as in the melding of fine art with consumer goods both quotidian and luxurious—two movements that continue to inundate the art world today.

After Warhol’s sudden death in 1987 from complications following gallbladder surgery, the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts was established in accordance with his will to manage his estate and with the mission to support visual arts, particularly “of a challenging and often experimental nature.” The foundation’s activities have frequently proved as contentious as Warhol himself.

In early 2012, the foundation’s 16-year-old Art Authentication Board was disbanded on the back of several authentication and antitrust controversies. In April 2011, the board had made the embarrassing admission that dozens of Brillo box sculptures it had authenticated as artworks from 1968 had actually been fabricated in 1990, three years after Warhol’s death. It had also spent USD 7 million defending a lawsuit brought by the collector Joe Simon-Whelan alleging that the foundation’s discretionary authentication powers were part of its “20-year scheme of fraud, collusion, and manipulation” to control the Warhol market. Collectors, spooked by the prospect of sitting on unauthenticated Warhols, then rushed to have their works included in the catalogue raisonné being produced by the foundation, which was seen as one of the last remaining avenues for fail-safe authentication.

In September of that same year, the foundation made the explosive decision to sell its entire collection of 20,000 Warhols and to concentrate exclusively on grant-making—its other primary activity. Amid fears of an impending and catastrophic depression of the Warhol market, 354 Warhols were sold at Christie’s in November 2012, raking in over USD 17 million. Alberto Mugrabi, whose family owns one of the world’s largest Warhol collections, compared the foundation’s decision to “sending masses of cattle to be slaughtered.” One suspects that Warhol, who took pleasure in upending conventions of the art market during his lifetime, might have been rather more amused.

A quarter-century after Warhol’s death, his images still loom large in the public consciousness, in part due to the aggressive and highly lucrative licensing strategies of the Warhol Foundation. The foundation has turned the artist’s estate into a merchandising bonanza, liberally licensing Warhol’s images for use on a plethora of consumer products including Dom Pérignon champagne, Vans sneakers, Nars cosmetics, Bond No. 9 perfume and fashion by several brands including the Gap, Levi’s and Diane von Furstenberg. In 1997, the foundation garnered annual income of USD 400,000 from licensing revenues; a decade later this amount had quintupled to over USD 2 million.

One of the most creative licensing deals of 2012 was the foundation’s collaboration with Campbell’s Soup Company to release a “limited edition” of 1.2 million cans of tomato soup, festooned in Warholian colors and quotes, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Warhol’s inaugural exhibition of his iconic Campbell’s soup can paintings. Ironically, that exhibition, held at the Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles in March 1962, opened to little fanfare, and Warhol himself was absent. Thirty-two portraits of Campbell’s soup cans, one of each flavor, were unceremoniously stacked in a row along a gallery wall. A neighboring gallery responded mockingly by piling dozens of real soup cans in its window, advertising them at three for 60 cents. The exhibition did eventually spark extensive controversy and media coverage, which, of course, Warhol welcomed. In 1964, a group show of Pop artists, “The American Supermarket,” was held at the Paul Bianchini Gallery on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. There, Warhol showed a Campbell’s soup can painting, priced at USD 1,500, alongside a stack of autographed soup cans each priced at a mere USD 6.

Today, Warhol’s silkscreened paintings of Campbell’s soup cans are some of the most recognizable and iconic works of postwar art. The lone red-and-white can, standing flat and emotionless in space, became an unlikely touchstone for the media-saturated, mass-produced, colorful yet vacuous nature of American culture in the early 1960s. Warhol’s use of mechanical repetition and silkscreening, derived from his career as an extremely successful commercial illustrator, were anathema to the philosophy and techniques of his peers working in the manner of Abstract Expressionism. The commercial illustrator in him was already finely attuned to manipulating the desires of the American consumer. Michael Fried, writing in Art International in December 1962, commended, quite sincerely, the artist’s “sure instinct for vulgarity.” Marcel Duchamp, who admired Warhol’s work, is frequently quoted as saying, “If a man takes 50 Campbell’s soup cans and puts them on the canvas, it is not the retinal image that concerns us. What concerns us is the concept that wants to put 50 Campbell’s soup cans on a canvas.”

In an era when art featuring appropriated imagery and signage had not yet sparked today’s hotbed of copyright lawsuits, Warhol never sought permission from Campbell’s to create his soup can silkscreens. Legend has it that Campbell’s originally considered suing the artist, but eventually decided that a smarter marketing strategy would be instead to ally itself with the oddball, silver-haired provocateur. The company permitted him to use original soup can labels as exhibition invitations, and even commissioned a painting for its retiring chairman, Oliver G. Willits. In May 1964, one William MacFarland, a marketing manager at Campbell’s and a Warhol fan, even sent Warhol two cases of tomato soup accompanied by a friendly letter stating that he had once hoped to acquire an original Warhol but was now regretfully priced out of the market.

The symbiotic relationship between Warhol and the Campbell’s Soup Company paid off handsomely for both parties. Today, Campbell’s soup cans are among the most recognizable American products in the world; the perception of the brand as a veritable repository of American culture and values is inextricably bound up in its association with Warhol. When Campbell’s revamped the design of its soup can labels in 2010, only the chicken noodle, tomato and cream of mushroom varieties—those most memorably immortalized by Warhol—remained unchanged. Likewise, Warhol’s Campbell’s soup silkscreens rank high in the pantheon of modern art. In November 2010, Big Campbell’s Soup Can with Can Opener (Vegetable) (1962) sold for a resounding USD 23.9 million at Christie’s New York.

The limited-edition soup cans, sold at Target superstores in 2012, came in four Warhol-inspired color schemes and featured the artist’s visage and signature on the label, replete with Warholian quotes such as “In the future, everybody will be famous for 15 minutes.” Each can cost just 75 cents—less than its actual production cost, and certainly contrary to conventional pricing strategy for limited editions. The campaign was a resounding success: within days, Target had sold their entire inventory. Delightfully true to the commercial ethos that Warhol so worshipped, the cans quickly resurfaced in online auctions on eBay for resale at substantial markups. One quartet was sold for USD 26, producing a healthy 766-percent return on the original investment.

The Target soup cans also raise several interesting intellectual property issues with regard to both the Warhol Foundation and Campbell’s. Campbell’s owns the trademark to its original red-and-white label, which debuted in 1898; Warhol appropriated that trademark into his art. Now, the Warholian appropriation is being effectively reappropriated by its original source, coming full circle. This constitutes a rare instance in which an artist appropriates a company’s trademarked image into a work and subsequently, in collaboration with the trademark’s owner, has the artwork repurposed into a marketing strategy for similar products from the original company.

Although the causes of action for copyright and trademark violations are clearly distinct, Campbell’s and the Warhol soup can images are so closely conjoined that their fates will inevitably be intertwined. In 2008, the fast-food chain Pop Burger opened a branch in midtown Manhattan featuring a wall-length composite mural of Warhol’s soup can paintings. Campbell’s immediately sent a letter to Pop Burger claiming trademark infringement on the grounds that the display misleadingly implied Campbell’s affiliation with Pop Burger, albeit making the admission that “we recognize that your use of this material is intended as an homage to Andy Warhol.” The Warhol Foundation, which could easily have raised a copyright infringement claim, did not publicly comment on the matter. Today, presumably following a private settlement, the mural remains in place.

Another interesting scenario could arise if another artist creates a work appropriating one of Warhol’s original soup can silkscreens. Depending on the work, he or she could potentially be sued by either the Warhol Foundation for copyright infringement, by Campbell’s for trademark violation, or both. However, most riffs on the Campbell’s soup can works have been enthusiastically embraced by the art world. Richard Pettibone, who re-creates popular artworks to the exact scale of their reproductions in art magazines, has depicted Warhol’s soup cans; a quartet of these miniature cans sold for a respectable USD 25,000 at Sotheby’s New York in 2012. The Chinese “Political Pop” artist Wang Guangyi’s painting Great Criticism Series: Campbell’s Soup (2000), which features the brand’s logo plastered above three figures from communist propaganda, fetched USD 228,400 at a Hong Kong auction in 2008. It would seem that both Campbell’s and the Warhol Foundation subscribe to the alleged philosophy underlying Microsoft’s marginal tolerance of intellectual property piracy: once enough copies of your product have flooded the world, capturing legions of eyeballs and users, you are assured of fame for much longer than 15 minutes.