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These ‘9 Cans of LaCroix’ paintings are Warhol’s ‘soup cans for millennials’

“9 Cans of LaCroix,” an ode to the popular sparkling water by San Francisco street artist fnnch, was on display last weekend at an art space called the SUB. (Galen Barbour)
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The cheap, fizzy drink that comes in Technicolor cans with a misleadingly snooty name has been called “start-up water,” “the Fort Lauderdale fountain of youth” and “methadone for the soda addict.”

Now, at least in San Francisco, LaCroix might be Andy Warhol’s “soup cans for millennials.”

In two sold-out shows last weekend, a collection of paintings called “9 Cans of LaCroix” debuted at the SUB, an off-the-grid warehouse art gallery in the city’s Mission District. The hundreds of people in attendance also imbibed cocktails containing the chilled hipster phenomenon and, of course, quibbled over which flavor was superior (pamplemousse, for those keeping track).

“Things got lit,” said Johnny Hwin, a community organizer with the SUB who arranged the event.

There was a “meta-ness” to it all, Hwin said: guests taking photos of other guests taking selfies in front of the LaCroix can paintings while drinking their own cans of LaCroix.

“And I’m just sitting here making LaCroix cocktails enjoying the spectacle of it all,” he said during a phone interview with The Washington Post.

The man who brought them the vision, a popular San Francisco street artist who goes by fnnch, is a self-described “Warhol fan-boy” who for five years has been tagging mailboxes and buildings with spray-painted stencil art of honey bears and lawn flamingos in a style he calls “contemporary pop art.”

In a “pretty direct homage” to the patron of his craft, fnnch, who does not go by his legal name when talking about his art, painted the LaCroix cans from the same vantage point and on the same sized canvasses as Warhol’s soup cans.

“I’m trying to just put my finger on the cultural zeitgeist,” fnnch told The Post, half-jokingly. “It’s the soup cans for millennials.”

He’s referring to pop artist Andy Warhol’s seminal 1962 work, 32 Campbell’s Soup Cans. Warhol went on to build a career making art out of mostly mundane, everyday items that, when seen through his eyes, spoke transcendentally. For 20 years, Warhol ate Campbell’s soup every day, he said, at a time when industrialized production was seen as a modern revolutionary feat.

And the reason he painted 32 cans was simple — Campbell’s soup had 32 flavors.

Like the work that inspired it, fnnch’s collection features LaCroix’s nine earliest flavors — “pure,” coconut, berry, lime, orange, peach pear, lemon, cran-raspberry and pamplemousse — and are valued at $500 each.

His original “9 Cans of LaCroix” is already spoken for, commissioned by a friend who suggested during a brainstorming session, at first in jest, that fnnch paint the favorite beverage of Silicon Valley millionaires and fiscally deprived youth alike.

Fans of the fizz — and fnnch’s interpretation of it — can return to the SUB August 18 for a final viewing, and those who want to worship a spray-painted LaCroix can at home can commission their own for $500. Four people have already placed orders and another seven have expressed interest. Most, unsurprisingly, want pamplemousse.

“People love LaCroix,” fnnch said, “so I’m happy to paint it.”

fnnch hopes people will see his LaCroix cans as a tongue-in-cheek commentary on the obsession with this particular brand of sparkling water and how it has come to symbolize the mounting irrelevance of sugary sodas.

It’s cheap, widely distributed and seems to transcend socio-economic status, fnnch said, an observation he used when making another connection between Warhol’s work and his own.

People are obsessed with LaCroix sparkling water. (Video: Amber Ferguson/The Washington Post)

There is a Warhol quote, from the pop artist’s autobiography, that fnnch pondered when painting “9 Cans of LaCroix.”

“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,” Andy Warhol wrote. “All the Cokes are the same and all the Cokes are good. Liz Taylor knows it, the President knows it, and you know it.”

Those words played well in 1975, fnnch said, when Warhol penned them and Americans still drank soda. But in 2017, an era of no-sugar, no-calorie, no-fun consumption, they’ve turned to what could be this generation’s Coca-Cola.

“A billionaire in San Francisco will still drink LaCroix,” fnnch said.

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Before LaCroix was endorsed by the New York Times, praised by Paleo bloggers and became Whole 30-approved, its first devotees were Midwestern moms, reported Vox last year.

The drink is named for the St. Croix River, a tributary of the Mississippi River that flows through Wisconsin, the state where it was founded in the 1980s. Your instinct may be to pronounce it like “La-qwah.”

But it is, in fact, “La-croy,” and the company even has a handy rhyme to help you remember: “enjoy LaCroix.”

It skyrocketed in popularity decades after its middle America debut, just as Americans began abandoning soda and after its new Florida owner, National Beverage’s Nick Caporella, moved the drink into artsy cans, a stark contrast to the green glass bottles of its more uppity competitors, Pellegrino and Perrier.

Warhol made a funky screen print of a Perrier bottle in 1983, which, wrote the Los Angeles Times, “helped to elevate the sparkling water brand into the realm of postmodern chic.” In the summer of 2013, Perrier, a French company, paid homage to the artist by making replica labels for the bottles — all in collaboration with the Andy Warhol Foundation.

LaCroix’s seemingly made-for-Instagram design, which predated the social media platform, was the least liked among the National Beverage management team. But consumers liked it the best.

“The strong color-blocking was impossible to miss on the shelf,” Lyle Zimmerman, head of branding and design firm Alchemy Brand group, which designed the LaCroix cans, told Bon Appétit magazine.

While painting his LaCroix cans, fnnch questioned some of the chosen color combinations, like chestnut brown and lime green for the flavor peach pear, a color scheme he called “anybody’s guess.”

“In some ways, the cans are actually really ugly,” fnnch said.

He’s not the only one who feels that way. Douglas Riccardi, a graphic designer who specializes in restaurant branding, told Bon Appétit that the LaCroix design “goes against everything I stand for as a branding expert and designer.”

“The logotype is not especially well-crafted. The pattern on the cans looks like the love child of Monet and Grandma Moses,” Riccardi told the magazine. And yet, he added, it has successfully sold itself as a fun, spunky alternative to soda. “Taking design cues from that mass-market swamp of ‘design,’ we get a crass, bold, colorful, populist package that delivers all the energy, pop, and fizz without the sugar and calories,” Riccardi said.

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It remains unclear if people like LaCroix because it’s tasty or because it’s pretty. But sales are booming.

National Beverage, with Nasdaq ticker FIZZ, reported its net income jumped to $107 million in the 2016 fiscal year, nearly doubling its $62.2 million earnings in 2015, reported the South Florida Business Journal. Though the company does not break down its earnings by product, its stock is being traded near its all time high at $99.13, according to the Business Journal, and has nearly doubled since last year.

And it remains the best-selling domestic sparkling water brand in the United States, according to the company.

All that, fnnch surmises, is context for “9 Cans of LaCroix.”

“There are things around us that are beautiful, and it just takes an artist to point their finger at it,” fnnch said. “It’s as magical now as it was when Warhol thought of it.”