After Apple and Google, Coca-Cola is the most valuable brand on Earth. Its parent company, traded as KO on NYSE, has a market capitalization of $200 billion, about the same as Facebook. The beverage was originally invented in 1885 as a cocaine-based tonic to cure morphine addiction. Coke became coke free in 1929. One hundred years ago they started bottling Coke, and the company is spending the next year promoting its bottle, an endeavor that includes a show at Atlanta’s High Museum, “organized…in collaboration with The Coca-Cola Company.”
My initial reaction to this was: The High Museum must receive a big chunk of its funding from the Coca-Cola Company and its executive class. (It does.) And the press release did not exactly offer the hard sell: “features more than 100 objects, including more than 15 works of art by Andy Warhol and more than 40 photographs inspired by or featuring the bottle.”
The High Museum is a white-wall-framed glass beauty designed by Richard Meier before every one of his buildings looked exactly the same. As the South’s foremost contemporary art institution, doing a show about soda pretty much screams lowbrow desperation. (As did Francesco Yates, the young singer of the new Coke anthem, who performed at the opening for a crowd that included some moderately famous people, like Kate Bosworth and Joe Mangeniallo: “You’ve got the right curves,” Yates sang. “Everybody wants what you got, but there’s only one you,” etc. Curves. Get it?)
Still, it was impossible not to be charmed by this “universal presence…of 20th century America,” to use a phrase by Julia Forbes, the show’s curator and museum’s Head of Interpretation and Digital Engagement.
Entering the High’s foyer, there were hundreds of 3-D-printed Coke bottles hanging from the ceiling. Upstairs, several galleries were dedicated to the bottle itself. (Big surprise: it went from glass to plastic to aluminum.)
In the room dedicated to Warhol, though, a genuine show suddenly emerged. The Andy Warhol Foundation lent a large 1962 Three Coke Bottles silkscreen with black ink on gray canvas, along with screen tests featuring Lou Reed sipping Coke, and some drawings and photos. Warhol had an intriguing relationship with Coke throughout his career. As he said in 1975:
What’s great about this country is that America started the tradition where the richest consumers buy essentially the same things as the poorest. You can be watching TV and see Coca-Cola, and you know that the President drinks Coke, Liz Taylor drinks Coke, and just think, you can drink Coke, too. A Coke is a Coke and no amount of money can get you a better Coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking. All the Cokes are the same and all the Cokes are good. Liz Taylor knows it, the President knows it, the bum knows it, and you know it.
Warhol was always coy about his true vision of American capitalism. He claimed to love it—and he even aped the very idea of mass production for his own output—but at the same time emphasized the idea of consumer products as pretty packages with shallow meaning. This show doesn’t illuminate anything about Warhol’s work because the Coke executives sponsoring this show are more invested in the brand than artistic epiphanies, but the question of what Warhol would have thought about the exhibition—like Warhol himself, simultaneously corporate and earnest—is at least fascinating to ponder.
The show takes on real weight, though, with a photograph by Margaret Bourke-White titled A Negro Rest Station at Elkridge, MD, from 1938, which depicts a “for colored” soda stand in the Jim Crow South.
The image is a timely reminder of America’s dark past, as well as the country’s progress and lack thereof. About a week after the show’s opening, President Obama declared America’s race issues “not over yet” on the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday in Selma, Alabama. At the same time, the Department of Justice was releasing statements and reports about a national criminal justice system that is imbalanced and broken.
The photography room is themed “Coke and The South.” That both Coca-Cola and the High Museum would foreground race is unexpected, but respectable, especially in Atlanta, one of the most upwardly mobile black cities in the country. These pieces are largely drawn from the collection of Joyce Linker, a grandmother and photography collector from San Francisco who specialized in Coke-related images. There’s a Walker Evans, a Bernice Abbott, and Imogen Cunnighham’s shot of Ansel Adams sipping away in Yosemite Valley. The room’s focal point is 15 pictures documenting Southern decline by William Christenberry, centered on the four decades of a Coke stand in the majority black Hale County, Alabama, a suburb of Selma.
The seemingly democratizing effects of a bottle filled with syrup and caffeine can still serve as a reminder that, outside of a shared affinity for certain products, parts of America remain separate and unequal.