I had a chance to see the Andy Warhol exhibition that just closed at New York's MOMA this past weekend. The high point of the show, indeed — one of art's high points — is Warhol's series of Campbell's soup cans. They were painted and first shown in Los Angeles in 1962, and all 32 of them are seldom on display altogether.
The critic Blake Gopnik marked the occasion with a short essay titled "32 Short Thoughts About Andy Warhol's Campbell's Soup Can Paintings at MoMA." He makes a lot of good points — 32 of them, actually, one for each painting. But one basic thought deserves restating here. These are paintings. They are manifestly hand-crafted and deliciously variable and detailed, even as they depict something machine-made and commercial. They invite and repay visual scrutiny.
I spent about two hours in the gallery and found myself thinking some additional thoughts, which I offer here as addenda to Gopnik's 32:
I rarely go to a museum these days without noticing how few people actually take the trouble to look, or pay attention, to the work. There's a sort of paradox at work. If the works are very famous, you can't see them, because you think you know them and can't see past your own pre-image. If the works are entirely unknown to you, they may not stimulate your interest and capture your attention. In both cases, the natural response, these days, is to snap a photo on your phone, of your child before the painting, or of yourself, or maybe of the painting itself, and then move on. In the approximately two hours I spent in the Warhol gallery, I can't honestly say that I saw anyone take a serious look at the paintings on exhibition. These works, so plain, so unadorned, so eminently available to the inquiring eye, were also — and maybe for that very reason — entirely concealed from view, right out there in the open.
In my new book on art — Strange Tools: Art and Human Nature (I plan to write more about this here in the next couple of weeks) — I argue that works of art are hard to see on purpose. They don't invite you to admire them, or check them out; they challenge you, rather, to try to see them when in fact you can't — at least not to begin with. "See me if you can!" says the work of art. "If you dare!" And it isn't easy to do. I saw this substantiated there with Warhol's Campbell's soup cans: How would you be affected, how would you be remade, if you were to find a way to put your camera away, ignore the person you are with, and actually try to see these misleadingly familiar paintings of Andy Warhol?
Soup is an anagram of opus, which is latin for "work" — as in artwork or magnum opus. That's pretty cool. Writ large on each of the 32 paintings, slap-bang in the full focus of the visual field is a word that playfully suggests what is in fact the case, that these are works, works which are hidden in plain sight, because they don't look like works.
What do they look like? They aren't pictures of anything really. They're certainly not paintings of actual soup cans. Nor are they really paintings of the label. He worked not from actual cans with actual labels, but from promotional materials that Campbell's sent out. In other words, these aren't so much pictures of either cans or labels, as they are reproductions or copies of commercial graphics, blending design and text. What kind of objects are these? These soups/works kick up this question like so much dust.
This explains, in part, why the resulting images are cartoonish. The label is reproduced — albeit by hand in an evidently awkward and imperfect fashion — and it is present not as part of a can's actual surface, with roundness and three-dimensionality, but as something flat and extended across the page. The fact that the cans' lids and bottoms are also added on, complete with highlights, is somehow jarring and goofy. The perspective isn't quite right. In the finished work, cartoon cans float, suspended in an unreal space.
Or, maybe they are suspended because they are somehow representations not of this or that soup can, or a kind of Campbell's soup, but because they are a kind of presentation of the essential soup can. The handmade quality reads as a kind of confident abbreviation in his rendering of the can labels. Rather than being pictures, they are, in the traditional sense, icons; that is, clusterings or agglomerations of identifying or defining traits. Now, this would be curious. It suggests that these paintings are asking real questions about what they represent. And, yet, one can only wonder: Why does this subject matter warrant this kind of questioning? But then this, again, is a quintessential art moment, if ever there was one, comparable to Duchamps' upending of a urinal.
Another word writ large across each of these soups, oops, I mean works, is "Condensed." The soups themselves are condensed, of course, but so are the paintings. They condense not the can, not the soup, not the label, but the very concept of all this, into a series of icons. These icons show us our own Campbell's canned soup concept in all its 32 varieties.
An older lady to my right said to her younger companion: "Now this one," pointing to the chicken noodle, "this is the one that she always got." She made this statement in the tone of voice that suggested that this painting had a special meaning for her, as if it was really made for her, because she, being of an age, had just her distinct personal history, a history in which this very soup, Campbell's chicken noodle, had played a distinct role. I was struck first by how remarkable this was. Somehow, Warhol, by painting something so familiar as to be unremarkable, so commonplace as to be truly undeserving of a rendering, ended up making something special in an intimate way to this one lady. And I was struck that one painting could function so effectively as a bit of playful, ironic, art-world wit and, at the same time, be so straightforwardly sentimental and affecting.
And, then, there is the sense, as you look at the paintings cast along the wall, that they are like baseball cards — or cans themselves — that have been painstakingly collected by someone manic, or compulsive, or determined enough to have gone to the trouble of finding them all. So, at least part of what is put on display, part of what is exhibited in a condensed form is this distinctive and recognizable form of collector's mentality. Warhol is putting the human mind, or at least one of its species, on exhibition. It isn't about soup cans. It isn't about pop culture. It is about us.
Alva Noë is a philosopher at the University of California, Berkeley, where he writes and teaches about perception, consciousness and art. He is the author of several books, including his latest, Strange Tools: Art and Human Nature (Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2015). You can keep up with more of what Alva is thinking on Facebook and on Twitter: @alvanoe