J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Friday, August 04, 2017

Brillo Box (3¢ off): Art, Investment, Commodity, Cultural Icon, Whichever

The producer of the definitive Andy Warhol documentary rightly observes the world has become vastly more Warholian since his death in 1987. Perhaps none of his pieces are more fundamentally Warholian than the Brillo Boxes—so-called because they faithfully copied the design of the Brillo Box cartons you could have found in the backroom of any supermarket in the 1960s. Warhol made a fair number of the big white Brillo Boxes, but only seventeen of the smaller, yellow “3¢ off” version. Lisanne Skyler’s family had one, but they parted with it before the Warhol market exploded. Skyler traces the box’s journey and explains its significance in the short (forty-minute) documentary, Brillo Box (3¢ off) (trailer here), which premieres this Monday on HBO.

The Skyler Brillo Box is a mysterious object of family lore that appears in their early photos, like a Rosebud sled for the entire family. To his credit, her father really got Warhol long before the general art world did. Her mother did as well, accept maybe even more so. She genuinely enjoyed having it around as an object in their apartment, but at that time he was constantly trying to flip his acquisitions or trade up to something with more long-term value. Much to her mother’s regret, he parted with the Brillo Box to acquire an original Peter Young.

For years, this looked like a rather bad trade, but Skyler archly observes the recent renewal of interest in the rediscovered Young’s work makes it less cut-and-dried. Still, it would be hard to top the staggering sum the Skyler family Brillo Box last fetched at auction.

On one level, 3¢ off is a brisk and colorful exploration of the intersection of family history and art history. However, Skyler quite slyly demonstrates the porousness of the boundaries between art, investment, commodity, and tongue-in-cheek provocation in the contemporary art world. The case study of the Brillo Box is particularly ironic, because it involves an artist (Warhol) appropriating a commercial design, created by abstract expressionist James Harvey as a day gig, to make a statement on commercialism, but the boxes themselves have become high-priced quest items for fabulously wealthy collectors. It is like Warhol’s joke continues to take on new dimensions.

Skyler fully analyzes the ironic cultural significance of the Brillo Boxes, but the film is also surprisingly poignant when she explores the 3¢ off Box’s significance to her family. It came into their possession at a very particular time in their history, for which her now divorced parents clearly look back on with great nostalgia. It is a sweet film, but it also gives viewers some sharp insights into the exclusive gallery industry, making it a good companion film to Barry Avrich’s documentary feature Blurred Lines and Tom Wolfe’s subversively droll critical-essay, The Painted Word. Enthusiastically recommended, Brillo Box (3¢ off) airs this Monday (8/7) on HBO.

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