Unpacking Andy Warhol’s Brillo Boxes

The documentary short ‘Brillo Box (3¢ Off)’ reevaluates the work of a pop art legend.

The average person knows very little about the art world. It exists in an almost mythical space, populated by faraway cosmopolitans who live apart from us, occupying a zone of freedom that involves holding well-mixed drinks. It is fitting, then, that the layman’s art education likely ends at the silkscreens and pithy quotes of Andy Warhol, whose infinitely imitable work delighted in suggesting there was something you just didn’t, couldn’t possibly get. But maybe we missed something. Such is the conceit that underpins Lisanne Skyler’s punchy HBO documentary short Brillo Box (3¢ Off). Maybe Warhol also made things that were worth looking at.

For Skyler (Capture the Flag), this is a personal journey. Her father, back when he was a young lawyer with boomer money to spend, had fancied himself an art collector, and among his early purchases was the film’s titular Warhol piece: a wooden representation of the common cleaning product, purchased for a hundred dollars in 1969. A few decades later it fetches, at Christies, a little over three million dollars. This can be written off, somewhat, as gaw shucks luck, a genre of Antique Roadshow silliness. Capitalism! Who knew! But that’s Warhol’s artifice, fame as random, temporal and meaningless along with its dividends. What makes Brillo Box (3¢ Off) remarkable is its insistence precisely on not doing that. Skyler demands we consider Warhol not as Duchamp’s po mo update nor as a proto-celebrity age sage but instead as a decorative artist, a maker of objects people can relate to and enjoy.

Amid her film’s pleasantly maximal production value is this argument: “Brillo Box (3¢ Off)” is interrogated as a representation of “the world all around us” but Skyler can only go so far with piecemeal art criticism. The box, through her narration, becomes an aesthetic signifier of the art world as a whole, something that Skyler is not alienated from but eagerly wants to be a part of. The movie becomes an extended reflection on the work, she brings in museum curators, art auctioneers, and her own family members in order to distill what exactly is at the root of the work’s, and Warhol’s, appeal.

When Skyler’s father parts with the piece, in exchange for a Peter Young that is later entirely forgotten, “Brillo Box (3¢ Off)” goes on to attract the eye of notable art collectors like Charles Saatchi and Robert Shapazian. It becomes the “crown jewel” of Shapazian’s collection, its little “3¢ Off” tag a brush stroke of capitalism’s quotidian reach. The supermarket visual stays in our mind, Shapazian diligently arranges it next to Warhol’s appropriated Kellogg’s and Campbell’s boxes. When we see the box hungrily bid on at Christies, Skyler energetically films this like a presidential debate, the camera zipping from bidder to bidder in tribute to that form’s love of invented drama, it is both absurd and obvious like those viral videos of mother killing each other that surface every Black Friday. Skyler’s narration betrays an earnest fascination with the sheer volumes of money being traded, as if repeating the numbers gets you closer to their aura.

Unlike similar folksy docs about laymen taking a gander at the art world (the banal bumpkins of Who the $&% Is Jackson Pollock? come to mind), Brillo Box (3¢ Off) is not dismissive of its progenitor or its allure. The art experts that Skyler puts together rattle a bit on Warhol’s image, his place in the culture; a lecture that partially teeters on the obvious. But maybe not. In sculpting the history of “Brillo Box (3¢ Off),” another story, one of Warhol forgotten in his final decade and whose notability as an art world powerhouse occurs as a posthumous event. Unable to compete with the forced irony of the Pictures Generation or the maximalist grandness of ’80s minimalism, Warhol’s work only begins selling for millions once he is both dead and the art marketplace spectacularly crashes in 1989, an event that, as Julian Stallabrass wrote in Art Incorporated, “slaughtered the bloated artistic giants of the 1980s glut, shattering art-world self-importance and confidence.”

It’s easy to see why they would suddenly turn to Warhol. His appropriative oeuvre was never as random as it appeared: his Brillio boxes, as Skyler’s film notes, were actually the work of James Harvey, a forgotten abstract expressionist who turned to commercial art when his paintings stopped selling. In taking Harvey’s “commercial” work and repurposing it high art, Warhol’s gesture suggests an inversion of the popular dichotomy between work you have to think about and work you can visually enjoy, buy if you can afford it. This is where Skyler’s personal story becomes more powerful than the eye-rolls it evokes on paper. “Brillo Box (3¢ Off)” is eye-catching, its sunny droplets of color and cool geometry are visual power chords. Buying it makes us feel happy. But watching it comes close too.

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