Last fall, I was wasting time channel hoping when I stumbled onto an HBO Documentary Films title called Brillo Box (3¢ off). More than anything else, what immediately jumped to mind was, “Oh! Andy Warhol!” and after watching it for a few moments my suspicions were confirmed as this was indeed a film about Warhol and his famous artwork sculptures. But as the film was more than half over when I stumbled onto it, I decided to use my PVR’s feature to “view upcoming times for this title” to find a future airing which I set my PVR to record. And like so many things I record, I then promptly forgot about it.
I'll be honest that I didn’t know anything about this film before I sat down to watch it. But after a quick Google search I learned from Wikipedia that Brillo Box (3¢ off) was a 2016 documentary short film written and directed by Lisanne Skyler. Specifically, her film was made to basically follow the provenance (the history of ownership) for the Warhol Brillo Box sculptures her family had owned.
Even if you’re not a huge fan of modern art or have never taken an art history course, you’ve nevertheless probably heard of Andy Warhol. Warhol was one of the major players in the pop art movement that swept the art world during the late 1950s into the 1960s. Pop art became attractive to emerging artists as it was new and marked a pushback to the kind of artwork that had been produced before it, such as work by American abstract expressionist artists like Jackson Pollock. Specifically, the movement was famous for appropriating and playing with imagery from popular culture such as advertising, comic books, packaging and other objects of ordinary or banal origins.
In viewing Brillo Box (3¢ off), I was looking forward to learning more about a more personal history behind what has become one of the pop art world’s most famous works.
The film opens with a short segment that quickly introduces the audience to the themes of the film and its main players. A catchy score plays over imagery of Brillo metal scouring pads being produced and packaged on an automated factory production line. It then immediately cuts to an image of Andy Warhol, who Lisanne Skyler, the film’s narrator says in “…1964 shocked the artworld by making hundreds of replicas of supermarket cartons and presenting them as art. His most notorious were the Brillo Boxes (1964)” (Skyler).
Skyler then introduces the audience to her parents, Martin and Rita Skyler, who got engaged that same year and started to collect artwork. One of the first artworks starting with one of the Brillo Boxes. Her mother Rita gives some insight into why they acquired it, “It was the fact that it was so out of context and it was a new form of art. I loved it. I absolutely loved it” (Skyler). She also says how her Father didn’t hang onto the Brillo Box very long, choosing instead to trade it for a work by another artist “…and the Brillo Box left our living room and went on a journey of its own” (Skyler). The introductory segment then ends by moving 40 years later to show how “…the same yellow Brillo Box (that) my parents acquired for $1,000 went on to sell for over $3 million” at a Christie’s auction in 2010. The film then plays out this story in greater detail over the course of the next forty-five minutes by interviewing various players in the history of their Brillo Box.
The film is great in how it concisely presents both the story of the Brillo Box alongside the context in which it was created and alongside the context of the ever changing artworld and art market of the 1980s to the present. For example, terms like Appropriation are introduced and defined by various experts, such as Eric Shiner, the director of the Andy Warhol Museum, who explained how:
Appropriation is a term that we use in art history to talk about how an artist will borrow something from mainstream culture or from a book or from another artist or from something. How it differs from the term copy I think when you appropriate something you tend to change it in some way. Warhol by far and away was the biggest and most successful appropriation artist. And we have cease & desist letters from Campbell’s and Coca-Cola but they realized very quickly that these were the most talked about artworks in the entire country and they should back off. (Shiner)
It was also amazing how Skyler was able to trace the sculpture's impressive provenance, as it passed from the hands of prominent collectors such as the UK advertising executive Charles Saatchi to Robert Shapazian, the founding director of the Gagosian Gallery in LA, among others. Further, Skyler was able to track down and interview many people who knew the different owners of the piece over time. Each interviewer was able to add to the tapestry of the story being told, and reveal the importance of the piece to a number of its owners. It's nicely done and it helped keep me captivated as the film moved along at a quick, crisp and steady pace to its poignant conclusion.
Overall, Brillo Box (3¢ off) is a great, short introduction to not only the history and importance of Warhol and his work, but of the larger art world and art market as it's existed over the last sixty years.
Brillo Box. Dir. Lissane Skyler. Perf. Lissane Skyler, Rita Skyler. HBO Documentary Films.