Analysis Of Campbell’s Soup Cans And Jasper John’s Three Flag: Two Prominent Examples Of Abstract Expressionism

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For most of the 1940s, Abstract Expressionism had been at the forefront of the American Art scene. This style was inherently personal, having been derived from the subconscious of the artist who made it. While viewers might hope to connect with the vibe of the Abstract Expressionist work, they could never fully understand the work’s meaning since it originated int the inner sanctum of the artist’s primal mind. Thus, in the late 1950s, there was a major shift art world; Neo-Dada and Pop Art came into existence as almost a reaction against the seriousness of Abstract Expressionism.

So when I visited the Whitney Museum of American Art for this assignment, I was intrigued by the similarities and contrasts between the Neo-Dadaism and Pop Art and decided to explore this further through the comparison of a work of a Neo-Dada artist, Jasper John, and a work of a Pop Art artist, Andy Warhol. In particular I will be juxtaposing the ‘Three Flags (1958)’ by Johns and the ‘32 Campbell’s Soup Cans (1962)’ by Warhol to further investigate the similarities and contracts.

Let us first talk about the ‘Three Flags (1958)’ by Johns, here three canvases are superimposed on one another in what appears to be reverse perspective, projecting toward the viewer. The painting has a sculpture like quality as it is five inches deep and seems to enter the space of the viewer. He used the technique of known as encaustic painting, which involves mixing of colorful pigments with warm wax, to paint the American Flag on respective canvases.

It was a rather quick process and required rapid brush strokes and allowed Johns to create layers of textures in the piece; highlighting the contrasts between the depicted image of the flag. This was not the first time that Johns painted the American Flag. Rather the American Flag becomes one of his signature emblems. He was known for using iconic images like the American Flag, Targets, maps, numbers and letters as his artwork which clearly showed his cross with Abstract Expressionism, where paintings had no recognizable content at all. Similarly, Warhol was also famous for his exploitation of popular images like advertising objects and portraits of Hollywood icons for his work.

This is evident in Warhol’s ‘Campbell’s Soup Cans (1962)’, it consists of thirty-two canvases. Each is twenty by-sixteen-inches and are hung in four rows of eight. Each canvas showcases a large can of Campbell’s soup against a white backdrop, there is only one apparent difference in the canvases that is the text identifying the flavors of the soup. Warhol made the paintings using casein, acrylic, and graphite and are all rendered in black-and-white lines, with an almost cartoonish graphic quality. Using repetition, subtle surface variations, and different color combinations, he transformed quotidian subject matter such as soup cans into optically charged, painterly fields. Also through the process of repetition, he reflects his characteristic interest in mimicking the conditions of mechanical reproduction.

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Through the expressionist paint strokes of John’s ‘Three Flags (1958)’ and his other works, the vocabulary of geometry reentered American Art. The application of painterly richness of surface to a commonplace American icon signaled the transition from Abstract Expressionism to Neo-Dadaism.

Johns divested the flag of its original symbolic and conventional aesthetic usage. Instead, he transformed it into data for examining perception, visual ambiguity, and the meaning of art itself. Johns’ work altogether represents his philosophical questioning regarding the use and meaning of art. Johns simply addressed the public with things they knew, unlike the Abstract Expressionists. John elevated the kitsch to proper art like the American Flag; thus such a move diluted the boundaries between the common people and art. In the ‘Three Flags (1958)’ by Johns any person would be able to recognize the American Flag and hence made it accessible to everyone. Further, this also allows him raise question like ‘What are you looking at, a flag or a painting of a flag?’, ‘What does difference does it make?’ These questions led to the realization that there was a massive gap between real life and ‘high’ art. Whereas works of Andy Warhol are a response to the socio-economic condition in the United States. United States had just recovered from the Great Depression and survived the World War II relatively unscathed, it wanted to carry on the success both socially and economically. It become the centre of modern art and culture and bore witness to mass consumerism.

Andy Warhol found himself fascinated by this change in American culture due to mass consumerism. In the 1960s everyone was drinking the same Coca Cola, driving the same Fords and eating the same Campbell’s Soup Cans. By choosing to paint the Campbell’s Soup Cans as the subject of his painting, he was celebrating both its iconic recognizability and its democratic appeal. The ‘Campbell’s Soup Cans (1962)’ was never one simple idea of a soup can, but a much more complex investigation of both painting and the properties of painting, as well as how certain products live in the culture.

Thus, while both artists, Jasper Johns and Andy Warhol, utilize icon that are probably recognizable by almost all of its viewers and contradicts the norms of the preceding styles like Abstract Expressionism by doing the same, I tries to allows the viewer to have freedom to interpret and associate with the artwork on a personal level. It allowed the artists to explore the boundary between common and high art. Although Andy Warhol’s Pop Art embraces the mass consumerism culture in its works.

Especially with the machine like repetition and rendition in the work distanced the artist from his work and gave room for a commercial connotation in the work. This kind of notion is not apparent in the Neo Dada work of Jasper Jones. Pop Art artists seem to want to express their optimism to the culture born Post World War II. It dd not critique consumerism, rather simply recognized it as fact of the times.

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