Dreaming of Canned Soup in 1962

Last month we visited the Pop Art Exhibition at the Art Gallery of NSW. It had been showing for a while but as is our habit, we waited until the last minute to go. There is no advantage to going late. We just get to see the exhibition with other latecomers. I often wonder if latecomers have a certain recognisable look? Do they have scuffed shoes or are their clothes mismatched or wrinkly? Do they fumble in their bags for the right money for the admission fee? Are they in a hurry because they forgot that that they also have a nephew’s birthday party to go to? I’ve never really noticed any identifiable look, as looking takes too much time and I’m too intent on getting through the exhibition before our parking runs out!

A guided tour was just about to start but we didn’t join — being short is not an advantage when it comes to looking at artworks in a group — I get distracted as the tour becomes a race between me and the rest of the group to the next artwork to make sure I am always standing in the front.

Fortunately the gallery was wasn’t as crowded as it usually is when we visit late, and we could linger in front of particular artworks instead of following gallery etiquette in crowds which requires us to look fast, read fast and move on.

The main artist I wanted to see was Andy Warhol. I have only a high school knowledge of visual art and Warhol is the only member of the Pop Art movement that I remember. Is he the most famous one? I was keen to see the iconic Campbell’s Soup and Marilyn Monroe for real!

I stood in front of large paintings of many Campbell’s Soup cans and tried to imagine myself as one of the first people to see this at Warhol’s first solo exhibition in 1962. I’d be wearing a loose, white boatneck sweater, black pedal pushers and flat shoes. My hair would be a short bob and I’d have thick, black eyeliner, and pale lipstick (yes, I know I’ve gone too far, but please indulge me a little longer). The sounds of traffic would be playing in the background.

I’d walk around the corner to be confronted with this wall of giant Campbell’s Soup cans. I’d think to myself, is this art? They are just perfectly painted cans of soup! Like an advertisement. They even look like they’ve been stencilled! This is outrageous! What is this doing here! …. Wait a minute, the artist is making a statement. I think he’s making a statement about how our world has become industrialised, and where once you would only get soup made from scratch for you by your mother or your wife, or a chef, you can now get it in a can, with very little direct human involvement at all! Soup has become mass produced for everyone. The tomato soup that you’ll eat today will taste exactly the same as the tomato soup that you ate yesterday. He’s saying that our lives are now fed by the convenience and duplication that machinery offers us and we like it! He’s brilliant!  (The last statement said out loud to my companions, stretching my arms out wide, dropping a bit of ash from my cigarette.)

Back to 2015, I truly did feel that the cans were special, and felt very happy to be standing there in the presence of them. (Though I was a little distracted by the Black Bean Soup. We don’t have the Black Bean Soup variety in Australia, and being of Chinese descent, I could only think that soup made with salty fermented black soybeans would taste awful!)

Less inspiring to me was Warhol’s sculpture (?) of three Campbell’s Soup boxes — packaging for 12 cans each. One box on top of another, a bit askew and the third casually placed nearby. They looked exactly like the boxes I see late at night on the floor of the local supermarket, thrown bowling ball style down the aisles by shelf stackers in a hurry. The boxes looked like they were bought yesterday. After standing there looking over the boxes for some time I still couldn’t see the significance of them. I said this to my husband who, perhaps sensing my overwhelming compulsion to kick the boxes, quickly pulled me away. I wouldn’t have actually kicked them, I’m not silly, but I felt that Warhol was playing with us and I was annoyed with him.

I wasn’t excited about the Marilyn Monroe silkscreen prints. Perhaps they needed to be seen from far away. I know that Warhol bought the rights to that photo just after Monroe died. Would they have made more sense to me if I had seen them at that time? Perhaps I had seen them so often in the media over the years that their impact had become lost on me.

They also had an Electric Chair print that I thought was chilling to look at close up. The details were so sparse, I think it was a pale green on a pale blue background, I really felt, like the person was alive, and then they were dead and the memory of them fades like this print and it’s like the person never existed in the first place.

So that was our visit to the Pop Art Exhibition. I later told my son about the boxes. He jokingly said that perhaps there was significance in the way the ‘This Side Up’  arrows were pointing. I started thinking, 36 cans of soup. You could exist on that for perhaps 12 days and never have to leave your flat or see another person in that time. Sustenance in 3 small cardboard boxes. Who knows what it all means! I sometimes wish artists would write something to tell us what they are trying to say so that we don’t speculate on their meaning.

I read that Andy Warhol was very fond of eating canned soup for lunch. Maybe he’s just laughing at people like me.