An L.A. Gallerist Bought Out Warhol’s First Painting Show for $1,000—and Ended Up with $15 Million

Andy Warhol, Campbell’s Soup Cans, 1962. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. © Andy Warhol Foundation/ARS, NY/TM Licensed by Campbell’s Soup Co.

When Los Angeles gallerists Irving Blum and Walter Hopps offered a young Andy Warhol his first-ever solo painting show, they thought it would be a sensation.

They were wrong. Local critics panned it; the Los Angeles Times went so far as to publish a snarky cartoon of two barefoot beatniks contemplating Warhol’s Campbell’s soup paintings. “Frankly, the cream of asparagus does nothing for me,” says one, “but the terrifying intensity of the chicken noodle gives me a real Zen feeling.” A nearby gallery tried to capitalize on the outrage by setting up a window display of Campbell’s soup, accompanied by the sign: “Get the real thing for only 29 cents a can.”

But Hopps wasn’t deterred. Ever since his first visit to Warhol’s studio, he was certain that the ghostly pale, silver-wigged artist was something special.

“Alice B. Toklas said that when she was in the presence of genius a bell would ring in her head,” Hopps recalls in a newly published book that collects and condenses a series of interviews with the influential West Coast curator. “A little bell rang that afternoon in Andy’s studio. He was just a natural. I’d never seen any paintings quite like these.”

Hopps, along with his partner Blum, ran the groundbreaking Ferus Gallery in West Hollywood. Originally founded by Hopps and artist Ed Kienholz in 1957, the gallery was initially a homegrown operation solely featuring California artists—Ed Ruscha, Larry Bell, John Altoon, and Robert Irwin, among others.

The art may have been first-rate, but neither Hopps nor Kienholz had a mind for business. Ferus was on the brink of shutting down when Blum, a dapper New York salesman, strolled in. He took over Kienholz’s share of the gallery and insisted that they add a handful of New York artists to the roster. “I didn’t want the gallery to have a provincial cast,” he later explained.

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