Soup cans to nuts

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s 1960s pop-art retrospective features local legends Wayne Thiebaud and Robert Arneson; an exhibit across the city gives a rare look at an earlier pop-art movement

Ah, when gumballs were cheap: Wayne Thiebaud, “Penny Machines,” oil on canvas, 1961.

Ah, when gumballs were cheap: Wayne Thiebaud, “Penny Machines,” oil on canvas, 1961.

You’ve seen them before, on TV, in magazines and even in your own cupboard. But the all-American Campbell’s Soup cans in silk-screened paintings by Andy Warhol are even better and a whole lot more fun to see big, up close and personal. Although Warhol’s name is synonymous with pop art of the last century, a number of artists contributed to the movement—including locals Wayne Thiebaud and the late Robert Arneson—and their work is included in Pop! From San Francisco Collections.

This exhibit, currently on display at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA), features 100 pieces—sculptures, paintings and works on paper culled from Bay Area private and museum collections—that spotlight some of the most influential artists on both coasts who fomented pop art between 1955 and 1980.

In the second half of the last century, when American mass media and popular culture grew to unprecedented statures, pop art emerged as a reflection and critique of them. Jasper Johns, Ed Ruscha, Roy Lichtenstein, Claes Oldenburg, Mel Ramos, George Segal, Bruce Connor and Robert Rauschenberg all injected well-known cultural elements, such as magazine shots, comic heroes, mundane items and ordinary objects of urban life, into their work.

So, when Warhol’s images, as in his 1962 painting “Campbell’s Soup Can (Pepper Pot)” or his 1964 silkscreen “Kellogg’s Cornflakes Box,” hit the retina, they forced commercial images from everyday life into an artistic context, an anomaly for the early 1960s. So, too, was the case with Warhol’s iconoclastic stylized portraits.

Warhol pulled well-known faces like that of Elizabeth Taylor into his work, stylized the images highly, and repeated them in different colors, such as in his 1964 “Liz” series of lithographs, a powerful commentary on how the media parades the lives of celebrities over and over again. (California’s current governor appreciated Warhol’s portraiture, commissioning Warhol in the mid-1980s to do six portraits of his then-future wife, Maria Shriver. Today, one of those portraits graces the governor’s office in the Capitol.)

While Warhol was busy in New York, Thiebaud was busy here in California’s capital. Thiebaud’s 1961 oil on canvas “Penny Machines” plucks imagery right out of childhood dreams, with the thick impasto application of oil as satisfying as a hard pull on a juicy jawbreaker. Ditto with his sugary “Display Cakes,” balanced on spindly perches, casting a perfect trio of shadows on a sterile counter that just make you want to hit the nearest bakery for an off-the-charts carbohydrate high.

More than 19 years ago, when Neal Benezra was associate curator of 20th-century painting and sculpture at the Art Institute of Chicago, he organized a traveling retrospective exhibit of Arneson’s work. Benezra wrote the catalog entries that accompanied the exhibit. Today, as SFMOMA’s director, who co-organized this show, it must have given Benezra great pleasure to include a piece from that retrospective, Arneson’s 1971 “Smorgi-Bob, the Cook.”

Arneson, a professor emeritus of art at the University of California, Davis, crafted a full-scale tableau, a feast-laden table compressed to offer an illusion of depth. In his 1985 catalog entries, Benezra revealed the final touch about “Smorgi-Bob”: “Arneson realized,” Benezra wrote, “‘that if I added another element in the back I could have a perfect triangle, so I included myself as a chef, honoring myself as a ceramist, a man of baked goods.’” “Smorgi-Bob” sparked Arneson’s favorite subject of portraiture: himself. He completed at least 18 self-portraits between 1971 and 1972.

Though “Smorgi-Bob” is unglazed pristine white, Arneson’s earlier “Typewriter” from 1965 offers a rough-hewn writing machine, sleekly glazed, with fingers wearing red-painted nails coming up instead of keys. In “Amended Version,” crafted six years later, the fingers are bloodied, and the typewriter melted—a darker note on the passage of time.

The speed of modern life always was noted in pop art. Lichtenstein used cartoon images and comics, taking small windows of imagery and blowing them up, as in his 1963 “Crying Girl.” Super-sizing the Benday screen dots of older comics, Lichtenstein slowed down the action by enlarging the images.

(Pop! From San Francisco Collections runs until September 19 at SFMOMA, 151 Third Street in San Francisco. SFMOMA is open daily, except Wednesday, from 11 a.m. to 5:45 p.m., and the museum is open late Thursday until 8:45 p.m. Admission is $10 for adults, $7 for seniors and $6 for students. Children 12 and under are free. The first Tuesday of each month is free. For information, visit or call (415) 357-4000.)

El Greco lighting with stylish threads: Tamara de Lempicka, “Girl in a Green Dress,” oil on panel, 1927.

Meanwhile, across San Francisco at the Legion of Honor, the focus is on earlier space and time in an exhibit titled Art Deco: 1910-1939. Organized by the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, the sumptuous exhibition surveys art deco, the early-20th-century movement that had a tremendous effect on many aesthetic aspects of life: clothes, travel, architecture and even the toaster that sat on your grandmother’s counter.

With more than 300 pieces, this exhibit—which makes stops in America only here and in Boston—is stunning and awe-inspiring. (It is also eye-opening, historical and educational.) Here, one can take in the impact of art deco, which continues to this day. Born between the two world wars, art-deco designs were inspired from art nouveau, melding those organic shapes with the geometric lines of cubism and then seasoning them with influences culled from Egyptian and South American cultures.

It wasn’t until 1966 that the term “art deco” was used to define the style that had been known previously as jazz moderne or streamline moderne. The name was derived from the 1925 Paris Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes, a huge international exhibition that spotlighted French design and drew more than 16 million viewers at the beginning of a dynamic surge of global commerce, communication and travel.

Dancer Josephine Baker was emerging as a barometer of modernity, with her primitively erotic performances. Everyone wanted to be modern. Art deco swept the world.

This was a prime time for artists and designers, with new synthetic materials, such as plastic, various metal alloys and aluminum, hitting the market. Industrial technologies allowed one-of-a-kind luxury items to be readily replicated on manufacturing production lines, making art-deco items available to common folk. Charlie Chaplin recorded the fast pace of industrialization in his 1936 movie Modern Times.

As the age of communication began to flourish, it helped to spread the art-deco style. Wealthy travelers luxuriated on art-deco ocean liners. Art deco brought the concept of streamlining into transportation, incorporating rounder forms in planes, trains and automobiles, including the Chrysler Airflow, the Auburn Speedster and even the Indian motorcycle. The availability of chrome and its polished sleekness found its way inside to mirrors, cigarette cases, martini shakers, coffee-service sets and toasters. Even the new age, with its chrome, got wrapped around Electrolux vacuum cleaners.

Rainbow-hued plastics like Bakelite, marketed as a machine-age miracle, pressed out everything from radios to jewelry. René Lalique’s 1925 “Deux Paons” features a pair of peacocks etched in clear glass, their majestic tails flanking a white, ribbed glass lamp in a stylized arc, all sitting atop a black Bakelite base. Furniture designers added chrome and plastic to their art-deco-inspired repertoires.

The deco touch reached cocktail bars and cinemas. In 1995, Sacramento’s own Crest Theatre was lavishly restored to its “post-art-deco” glory, with its distinctive gold leaf-and-swirl pattern.

Art deco became synonymous with Hollywood fashion—Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford and those glamorous gowns by Jeanne Lanvin, Elsa Schiaparelli and Jean Patou. Coco Chanel’s 1932 evening dress, a fluid, floor-length drink of azure sequins, would dazzle at the Academy Awards today. And jewels: A 1932 emerald-and-diamond stunner necklace by Cartier could only make Harry Winston eat his heart out.

A corsage ornament by Boucheron contrasts lapis lazuli, coral, jade and onyx in an abstract mosaic delineated by diamonds. The Egyptian influence is unmistakable here, while Chinese-inspired dragons chase around the waist of a 1925 beaded silk “Chimere” evening gown by Jeanne Paquin.

Architects used the sleek lines of art deco to design some of the most beautiful structures in the world, including New York’s Empire State and Chrysler buildings. Closer to home, Oakland’s Paramount Theatre and San Francisco’s Shell Building, Coit Tower and the Pacific Telephone and Telegraph Company building, all bear the movement’s unmistakable stamp.

But the most famous landmark born of art deco is the one you cross when you enter San Francisco from the north. Built in 1937, the Golden Gate Bridge was created with art-deco-inspired stepped towers.

(Art Deco 1910-1939 runs until July 4 at the Legion of Honor in Lincoln Park, at 100 34th Avenue in San Francisco. The museum is open Tuesday through Sunday, 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m., with the last admission one hour before closing. Advance tickets, particularly on the weekends, are advised. Tickets can be purchased at the museum, by calling (866) 775-3485 or online at Tickets for 10 or more can be purchased through the group-ticketing office at (415) 750-3537. Admission fees are $15 for adults, $13 for seniors, $12 for youths 12-17 and $7 for children 5-11. Children under 5 are free. General admission is waived every Tuesday from 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.; however, a $7 special-exhibition fee is still in effect.)