Pop Goes the Tomato 

Photo by David Holmes

No one has elevated the everyday staple of tomato soup to such iconic status as artist Andy Warhol. And, frankly, no one else could. The pop artist’s Campbell’s Soup Cans has become shorthand for the mass production and commoditization of everything in society—including art—and has been collected by thousands of rabid Warhol fans worldwide.

Ron Rivlin knows this firsthand. The music industry veteran spent 20 years promoting concerts and managing musicians, eventually starting his own talent agency in the late 1990s. After his son was born, Rivlin had a Jerry Maguire moment: “I had 40 clients and was dividing up my time between them all, but I would rather have less and give them more attention. The lifestyle was just too much for me, and my heart wasn’t in it anymore,” he says.

Rivlin segued briefly into the night club and restaurant business to open The Hudson, and a few other (now shuttered) hot spots in West Hollywood. On a trip to Toronto to see an old friend, however, Rivlin became enamored of a signed Mick Jagger Warhol piece and started looking into purchasing one of his own.

Andy came up with something so mundane and called it art. It was so controversial. The fact that [his work] was deemed a form of art and expression redefined art as a whole.

After calling a dealer in Philadelphia, Rivlin was shocked that the price had spiked from $10,000 to $52,000 in a matter of months. He became obsessed with the market and began looking up the artist’s auction history and frequenting sites such as Artnet.com. “I looked at the soup cans and they had jumped from $5,000 to $20,000,” he recalls.

Rivlin immersed himself in all things Warhol, watching the Ric Burns PBS documentary and tearing through any book he could find. “My passion for Andy Warhol and his accomplishments went beyond the art,” he explains. He finally became a collector with his first purchase, a signed image of fellow Canadian Wayne Gretzky, for $8,000. Truman Capote and Nixon soon followed.

As his collection grew, Rivlin needed a place to house the works. On a whim, he rented a 500-square-foot retail space and decided to open a gallery showing his 17 pieces in 2013.

Rivlin has bought more than 500 Warhol works since and has around 250 pieces in inventory. His Revolver Gallery in Santa Monica is the largest in the world devoted exclusively to Warhol. “Instead of having my artwork in storage, I’d rather have people see it,” Rivlin says. This past February, 30 years after the artist’s passing, Rivlin debuted Andy Warhol: Revisited. The exhibit has been so popular that it’s been extended indefinitely (by appointment only).

In talking with Rivlin, it’s clear people are still fascinated with Andy Warhol and the tomato soup cans so many years later. “Andy came up with something so mundane and called it art. It was so controversial. The fact that [his work] was deemed a form of art and expression redefined art as a whole,” he says. Warhol was embracing pop culture and making it accessible to the masses by reproduction. “It was groundbreaking.”

Rivlin owns 15 versions of Campbell’s Soup Cans altogether (a full suite of 10 and five singles) and sells lots of them to clients, who mostly hang them in their kitchens. “It’s a bold statement, but simple to digest,” he says.