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16 Things You Might Not Know About Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Cans

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Sion Touhig/Getty Images

It’s easy to look at Andy Warhol's breakout Campbell's Soup Cans and think, "What's to know? It's cans of soup." Critics certainly did. But that’s just one of the bumps Warhol’s work hit on its path to becoming iconic. 

1. IT’S NOT AS REPETITIVE AS YOU MIGHT THINK. 

At a glance, Campbell's Soup Cans looks like a series of repetitions of the same can on similar 20-inch-by-16-inch canvases. But the reason Warhol cranked through 32 different canvases can be found on closer inspection of the names on both the cans and the paintings. (Tomato, Clam Chowder, Black Bean…) Warhol created a portrait of every non-frozen Campbell's soup flavor available to him in 1962. 

2. WARHOL BECAME A MACHINE TO MASTER HIS VISION. 

After buying every kind of can at his local grocery store, the eccentric artist projected each can onto a canvas. Each time he carefully traced out their finest details. Then, the 33-year-old meticulously filled in his outlines, hoping to mimic the mechanically reproduced look of the original labels. 

3. WARHOL’S PROCESS WASN’T PERFECT. 

Warhol used a hand stamp to keep the fleur-de-lis pattern that lines the bottom of each can consistent. But his placement varied from canvas to canvas. Similarly, the hues of red and white vary slightly, and one soup can is missing the gold band. But some critics have argued these human touches amid attempted uniformity are what make Campbell's Soup Cans so compelling.  

4. THE PAINTINGS’ GALLERY DEBUT ALSO PULLED INSPIRATION FROM THE GROCERY STORE.

While visiting the Pittsburgh-born provocateur in the midst of Campbell's Soup Cans' production, art dealer Irving Blum was so impressed that he offered Warhol a show at the Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles. Blum staged the series of soup can paintings on grocery store shelves that lined the length of his groundbreaking gallery.

5. THE PAINTINGS MADE HISTORY. 

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Not only was the Ferus Gallery show Warhol's first solo exhibition of pop paintings, it was also the first time Pop art had been displayed on the West Coast. No matter what the response was, this was a history-making event. 

6. THE CRITICS WERE HARSH. 

The Los Angeles Times wrote of the exhibit, "This young 'artist' is either a soft-headed fool or a hard-headed charlatan." Essentially, Warhol's cans reignited the age-old debate about art versus commercialism that plagued Pop art in the early 1960s. 

7. OTHERS OPENLY MOCKED THE WORK. 

One art dealer down the street from the Ferus crudely lampooned Campbell's Soup Cans by stacking actual soup cans in his gallery. To add insult to injury, the enterprising art troll promoted the event by advertising that at two for 33 cents, his cans were cheaper than Warhol's, which were selling for $100 each

8. THE INITIAL SALES STRATEGY WAS SHAKY. 

Though the rising artist had already been featured in a Time magazine article with the likes of American Pop pioneers Roy Lichtenstein, Wayne Thiebaud, and James Rosenquist, Blum advised Warhol to set a "low price level during initial exposure." This plan did help sell five of the 32 paintings. But Blum soon realized selling the cans individually would destroy the power of the pieces as an ensemble. To correct the situation, he reached out to all the owners, including movie star Dennis Hopper, and bought back all of the sold pieces. Then Blum offered Warhol $1000 for the lot, which Warhol accepted.

9. KEEPING THE CANS TOGETHER CEMENTED THEIR LEGACY. 

Reflecting back on Campbell's Soup Cans, the BBC credited Blum's grouping of the 32 canvases as the cause for the public's shift from apathy to excitement over the series. "This made it different; it made it a statement," journalist Sara McCorquodale wrote. "The work seemed to speak of the spirit of a new America, one that thoroughly embraced the consumer culture of the new decade. Before the end of the year Campbell’s Soup Cans was so on-trend that Manhattan socialites were wearing soup can-printed dresses to high-society events." 

10. CAMPBELL’S BECAME A WARHOL STAPLE. 

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Campbell's Soup I, Campbell's Tomato Juice Box, Small Torn Campbell's Soup Can (Pepper Pot), Campbell's Soup with Can Opener and Crushed Campbell's Soup Can (Beef Noodle) are just a few of the variations Warhol created on the theme. 

11. THE WORK EVENTUALLY LAUNCHED WARHOL’S CAREER. 

His first solo exhibition was considered a flop, but Warhol was undeterred: He continued to churn out pop art inspired by Campbell's soups and other pop culture-inspired pieces. And the critical and public opinion began to turn in his favor. By October of that year, The New York Times was proclaiming his pieces satirical. 

The debate over his work raged on, but by the 1964 exhibit The American Supermarket, which took place on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, Warhol was asking for $1500 for one of his other soup can paintings, a steep increase from his Ferus days. Art historians now regard the L.A. show as Warhol's breakthrough. The New York exhibition was just when the rest of us caught up with him. 

12. WARHOL HAD THE LAST LAUGH ON THOSE WHO HAD MOCKED HIM. 

The American Supermarket sold actual cans of Campbell's Soup autographed by the artist. The show's invitation blithely marketed their sale: "3 for $18, $6.50 each," a 2900 percent markup over what an unsigned can would cost in a traditional supermarket. 

13. BLUM CASHED IN WHEN HE SOLD THE SOUP CANS. 

Once he acquired the Campbell's Soup Cans, the curious art collector kept them for 34 years. During this period, he witnessed the rise of Andy Warhol, suffered the pain of the artist's unexpected death in 1987, and held onto the paramount pieces for another nine years before selling them to New York City's Museum of Modern Art for upwards of $15 million. 

14. THE MOMA CHOSE TO DISPLAY THE CANS IN A NEW WAY. 

Instead of mimicking Blum's grocery aisle approach, the museum hung the canvases in a grid formation. They were arranged in chronological order of the introduction of each Campbell's soup flavor, beginning with 1897's Tomato on the top left. Recently, though, the museum has moved Tomato to the bottom and given Manhattan Style Clam Chowder pride of place.

15. WARHOL SINCERELY LOVED CAMPBELL’S SOUP. 

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He famously said, “I used to drink it. I used to have the same lunch every day, for 20 years, I guess, the same thing over and over again.” He had internalized the soups both literally and metaphorically. Warhol's admiration of how the uniformity of each flavor was consistent from can to can inspired him to turn to photo-silkscreen printing following Campbell's Soup Cans's creation. This technique would become a signature of the artist's unique brand, including his iconic portraits of Marilyn Monroe and Jacqueline Kennedy.   

16. CAMPBELL’S LOVED WARHOL RIGHT BACK. 

Warhol made the pantry staple feel cool, and Campbell’s appreciated the favor. In 1966, the company paid homage to Campbell's Soup Cans with a limited edition dress. For just $1 and two can labels, a soup-loving fashionista could sport the paper Souper Dress. Today, these paper dresses can fetch upwards of $7500.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
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How Experts Say We Should Stop a 'Zombie' Infection: Kill It With Fire
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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Scientists are known for being pretty cautious people. But sometimes, even the most careful of us need to burn some things to the ground. Immunologists have proposed a plan to burn large swaths of parkland in an attempt to wipe out disease, as The New York Times reports. They described the problem in the journal Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews.

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a gruesome infection that’s been destroying deer and elk herds across North America. Like bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, better known as mad cow disease) and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, CWD is caused by damaged, contagious little proteins called prions. Although it's been half a century since CWD was first discovered, scientists are still scratching their heads about how it works, how it spreads, and if, like BSE, it could someday infect humans.

Paper co-author Mark Zabel, of the Prion Research Center at Colorado State University, says animals with CWD fade away slowly at first, losing weight and starting to act kind of spacey. But "they’re not hard to pick out at the end stage," he told The New York Times. "They have a vacant stare, they have a stumbling gait, their heads are drooping, their ears are down, you can see thick saliva dripping from their mouths. It’s like a true zombie disease."

CWD has already been spotted in 24 U.S. states. Some herds are already 50 percent infected, and that number is only growing.

Prion illnesses often travel from one infected individual to another, but CWD’s expansion was so rapid that scientists began to suspect it had more than one way of finding new animals to attack.

Sure enough, it did. As it turns out, the CWD prion doesn’t go down with its host-animal ship. Infected animals shed the prion in their urine, feces, and drool. Long after the sick deer has died, others can still contract CWD from the leaves they eat and the grass in which they stand.

As if that’s not bad enough, CWD has another trick up its sleeve: spontaneous generation. That is, it doesn’t take much damage to twist a healthy prion into a zombifying pathogen. The illness just pops up.

There are some treatments, including immersing infected tissue in an ozone bath. But that won't help when the problem is literally smeared across the landscape. "You cannot treat half of the continental United States with ozone," Zabel said.

And so, to combat this many-pronged assault on our wildlife, Zabel and his colleagues are getting aggressive. They recommend a controlled burn of infected areas of national parks in Colorado and Arkansas—a pilot study to determine if fire will be enough.

"If you eliminate the plants that have prions on the surface, that would be a huge step forward," he said. "I really don’t think it’s that crazy."

[h/t The New York Times]

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