It’s not just any ‘Brillo Box’


Ap­par­ently, we can’t get enough of Andy Warhol — or, at least the mythos of Andy Warhol, dead now for more than 30 years.

The lat­est ex­am­ple is “Brillo Box (3¢ Off ),” a pleas­ant if rather in­con­se­quen­tial doc­u­men­tary that de­buts Mon­day on HBO. The nar­ra­tive fol­lows the life of a Warhol Brillo box sculp­ture, one of dozens he and his as­sis­tant, Ger­ard Malanga, pro­duced be­tween 1963 and 1964.

Most of them are or­di­nary ply­wood cubes in the prod­uct’s con­ven­tional red­white-and-blue color scheme. White boxes were silk-screened to sim­u­late the com­mer­cial card­board con-

tain­ers in which boxes of the fa­mil­iar steel wool pad were shipped.

But a few, in­clud­ing this one, over­lay Brillo’s red and blue logo onto a box painted yel­low rather than white. (Warhol, fol­low­ing the lead of erst­while house painter and then-Ab­stract Ex­pres­sion­ist ti­tan Willem de Koon­ing — his hero — used house paint.) The vivid re­sult is a box sport­ing the pri­mary triad in a stan­dard artist’s color wheel.

Warhol was a na­tive of Pitts­burgh — Steel City, as it was known, back when belch­ing fur­naces made it one of the largest (and dirt­i­est) pro­duc­ers of in­dus­trial steel in the world.

Al­ready a hugely suc­cess­ful com­mer­cial artist in New York, he was rapidly tran­si­tion­ing into the bur­geon­ing Man­hat­tan art world, where his paint­ings of soup cans and celebri­ties had fi­nally be­gun to at­tract at­ten­tion.

The steel wool car­tons were pro­duced in tan­dem with the first self-por­traits of the Steel City artist. Warhol’s Brillo box sculp­tures — more ac­cu­rately re­garded as three-di­men­sional paint­ings — were semi-au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal artis­tic pack­ag­ing.

You won’t find out any of that in the doc­u­men­tary, though, which is less about Warhol’s art than the un­pre­dictable art mar­ket.

The par­ents of writer and direc­tor Lisanne Skyler were ac­tive if mod­est art col­lec­tors in New York, and in 1969, they plunked down $1,000 for the yel­low Brillo box. It was the sec­ond work of art they bought. Two years later, they sold it — the price is un­recorded — although not be­fore us­ing the sculp­ture as an apart­ment­size cof­fee ta­ble. A fam­ily al­bum snap­shot shows baby Lisan­neperched atop it.

Sub­se­quently, it passed through sev­eral hands, in­clud­ing those of Lon­don ad­ver­tis­ing mag­nate and mega-col­lec­tor Charles Saatchi, be­fore end­ing up in L.A. Col­lec­tor Robert Sha­pazian ac­quired it at auc­tion for $43,700 in 1995, the same year he be­came the found­ing direc­tor of Gagosian Gallery in Bev­erly Hills.

Un­like Martin Skyler, the direc­tor’s father, who is char­ac­ter­ized in the film as al­ways hav­ing had an in­vest­ment an­gle to his art col­lect­ing, Sha­pazian never did. Work­ing at Gagosian, he learned to re­spect col­lect­ing mo­tives dif­fer­ent from his own. But Sha­pazian was at heart an in­tel­lec­tual (his Har­vard PhD was in English lit­er­a­ture) and, in mat­ters of art, largely self-taught.

Sha­pazian died in 2010. He be­queathed an­other Brillo box and a small Warhol Camp­bell’s soup can paint­ing to the Hunt­ing­ton Li­brary, Art Col­lec­tions, and Botan­i­cal Gar­dens in San Marino. But the red-yel­low-blue “Brillo Box (3¢ Off),” along with ad­di­tional Warhol works and art by other no­table artists, was posthu­mously con­signed to Christie’s.

“Brillo Box (3¢ Off )” set a sur­prise auc­tion record, nearly qua­dru­pling its es­ti­mate and pulling down $2,650,500, plus a $400,500 buyer’s pre­mium for Christie’s. Some cof­fee ta­ble. Skyler tracked down painter Peter Young — the no­table if less com­mer­cially suc­cess­ful artist whose ab­stract paint­ing her father bought with the money from his 1971 sale of the Warhol — for an in­ter­view. Young had de­camped for Bis­bee, Ariz., not long af­ter a suc­cess­ful New York de­but landed him on the once-pres­ti­gious cover of Art­fo­rum mag­a­zine, re­buff­ing the merce­nary Man­hat­tan art sys­tem to which Warhol so dearly craved ad­mis­sion.

The dif­fer­ences be­tween Warhol and Young couldn’t be greater, ar­tis­ti­cally or tem­per­a­men­tally. Wisely, no judg­ment is of­fered on which is the ap­pro­pri­ate path for an artist to take, since artists must do what they choose to do.

And it’s worth not­ing that Young’s work — com­plex geo­met­ric ab­strac­tions — has been en­joy­ing some­thing of a late-ca­reer re­vival in re­cent years.

It’s hard to know quite why the doc­u­men­tary was made, how­ever, ex­cept as a per­sonal story of a fa­mil­ial brush with brief art world no­to­ri­ety. It’s a sim­ple tale of serendip­ity — of a sculp­ture that broke an auc­tion record.

The film (pro­duced by Skyler and Ju­dith Black and edited by Jeanna French) does have a rea­son­ably cava­lier at­ti­tude about the huge hike in mon­e­tary value that the yel­low Brillo box un­der­went over nearly four decades, and that’s re­fresh­ing. Wiser still, it is any­thing but a lament for lost riches.


“BRILLO BOX (3¢ Off)” ex­plores fate of an Andy Warhol box sculp­ture.


FU­TURE film­maker Lisanne Skyler perches atop the Warhol sculp­ture, then be­ing used as a cof­fee ta­ble.

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