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Critic's Notebook: Andy Warhol's Campbell's soup cans condensed a surprising idea

July 9, 2011 |  6:15 am

Warhol Ferus Campbell's 1962 In her new book "Rebels in Paradise: The Los Angeles Art Scene and the 1960s," Hunter Drohojowska-Philp recounts a now-legendary story of then-unknown artist Andy Warhol, and how the New Yorker's landmark soup can paintings came to have their public debut at an L.A. art gallery in 1962.

"Warhol's paintings of Campbell's soup cans, 32 to be exact, each painstakingly lettered with the appropriate flavor, were arranged on a shelf that girdled the walls, turning the gallery into a grocery store of sorts," she writes. "[Gallery co-owner Walter] Hopps' wife, Shirley, recalled, 'It was one of those times when we knew we were on to something.' "

Precisely what they were on to could -- and did -- fill many books in coming years, about Pop art in general and Warhol in particular. The Museum of Contemporary Art has now borrowed the suite of 32 small canvases to commemorate Saturday's anniversary of the Ferus show's opening -- apparently the first time the suite has been on public view again in the city where it initially saw the critical light of day. On loan from the collection of New York's Museum of Modern Art, the paintings will be at MOCA until Labor Day.

But here's a question: Why did Warhol even paint Campbell's soup cans? Why not, say, cans of Chef Boyardee ravioli?

The artist died in 1987 at 58, in the tragic aftermath of routine gallbladder surgery. Yet, in the 49 years since his soup can show opened at Ferus Gallery on La Cienega Boulevard, something has been missing. No convincing explanation has ever been offered as to why Warhol chose soup -- a surprising subject --  for paintings that came to define the Pop art era.

If you think the answer is that he ate it for lunch every day for 20 years, as Warhol liked to tell credulous interviewers -- well, think again. In Sunday's Arts & Books section I'll suggest another, more meaningful reason, largely unconsidered before now, that I think explains Warhol's eccentric choice of Campbell's soup. Click here for this critic's notebook.

--Christopher Knight

Photo: Ferus Gallery poster, 1962. Credit: Museum of Contemporary Art