Andy Warhol (American, Pittsburgh 1928? - 1987 New York)
Brillo Boxes, 1970 (enlarged refabrication of 1964 project)
Commercial silkscreen inks on industrially fabricated plywood box supports
Each: 20 x 20 x 17 in. (50.8 x 50.8 x 43.2 cm)
Gift of John Coplans in memory of Ruth C. Roush, 1980
More than thirty years after their first exhibition at Stable Gallery (in 1964) in New York, Warhol's Brillo Boxes continue to unsettle museum visitors through their deadpan replication of American commercial culture.1 As part of Warhol's first sculptural project, the Brillo Boxes comment on the commercial framework behind the pristine spaces of the art gallery and art museum, while rubbing the nose of high culture in the mundane disorder of the supermarket stockroom.
Warhol's work of the early 1960s consciously destabilized the distinct domains of high culture and commercial art. His background as a commercial illustrator and his rapid success as a graphic designer and window dresser after his arrival in New York City in 1950 placed Warhol firmly beyond the pale of Greenbergian Modernism's Manichean divide between art and kitsch.2 Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, both gay artists struggling to escape the machismo posing of the New York School, had opened paths in the late 1950s that had immediate relevance for Warhol. Their critique of the obsessive, autographic practices of Abstract Expressionism in favor of a broad embrace of the detritus of American visual culture--flags, targets, newspaper photographs, and found objects--gave Warhol the impetus to embrace commercial culture as the central source of imagery for his work. The simultaneous emergence of artists like Roy Lichtenstein, Marisol (b. 1930), and James Rosenquist crystalized a new movement, Pop Art, with record speed. Through his adoption of not only the images of commercial culture, but also its organizational and promotional techniques, Warhol soon consolidated his position as the moot Pope of Pop.
Warhol's commercial art business had accustomed him to the use of assistants and the opportunistic nature of the work-for-hire economic environment. This modus operandi emerged equally in Warhol's studio art practice as well. In 1963 Warhol moved his visual arts operations to a building at 231 East 47th Street in New York, a space dubbed The Factory by Warhol and his growing circle. The Factory, its interior sheathed with silver foil and aluminum paint by Billy Name, one of Warhol's most fanatic assistants during the 1960s, theatricalized the mock-industrial mode of production Warhol had adopted for his paintings and the films he had begun to make earlier that year. The exploitative character of Warhol's enterprise earned him a new nickname amongst his entourage: Drella, a conjunction of Dracula and Cinderella.3 The Brillo Boxes emerged from this heady and ultimately destructive milieu, the setting for what might arguably represent the most potent phase of Warhol's career. This moment was brought to an end by the 1968 murder attempt on the artist by Valerie Solanis, for whom Warhol represented the ultimate white male exploiter. The Brillo Boxes were but one type within a group of replicas of commonplace supermarket packaging--Del Monte Peach Halves, Campbell's Tomato Juice, and Heinz's Ketchup--included in the 1964 Stable Gallery show. Unlike the other "products," however, several types of Brillo boxes were replicated, including a smaller yellow "3 ¢ off" version. Warhol had delegated the selection of the carton prototypes to Nathan Gluck, one of his commercial art assistants,4 but rejected Gluck's campier choices in favor of the most banal examples of supermarket packaging.5 The boxes were fabricated in plywood by an outside manufacturer, and then painted to mimic the models. The lettering and logos were screenprinted on the prepared boxes, replicating the originals with uncanny accuracy. The first group of boxes was screenprinted in The Factory by Warhol and his principal assistant of the '60s, Gerard Malanga,6 the mode of production aping the assembly-line techniques then thought to be the sole paradigm for industrial production. Seldom was the brute act of repetition as evident as in the box project.7
Critics and scholars have long sought to pierce the neutral facade Warhol carefully maintained with regard to the meaning of his work. Does Warhol's artistic practice admit of any critical distance from the images it reproduces? In this regard it is worth noting that the Brillo Boxes represent the only product, among the box sculptures, that is not (processed) food, and the commodity, Brillo, is perhaps the most radically transformed through its presentation. A peach is a peach, whether Del Monte or not. The case of Brillo differs. Brillo is nothing other than steel wool, an industrial product available under a myriad of brand names in any hardware store, a part of the masculine world of car refinishing, boat repair, and industrial labor. Yet the product Brillo belongs to the domestic order, a feminine-gendered space in 1960s America.
Steel was no dead metaphor to Warhol, a gay man who came of age in a Pittsburgh still synonymous with the steel industry, a city glowing at night and blackened by day through the action of blast furnaces and smelters. Yet steel, the stuff of I-beams, also becomes wool. Brillo, through simple packaging, transforms steel wool into the perfect housewife's friend, a faithful ally in the never-ending pursuit of shining aluminum cookware. With the Brillo Boxes, Warhol captured the power of advertising at its most alchemical, powerful enough to mutate substance and gender at will. Yet a further twist can be discerned in the Brillo project. The Brillo Boxes are empty, filled with nothing but air, as hollow as the rhetoric so boldly emblazoned upon them.
Work (C) 1998 Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts/ARS, New York
In keeping with the example of the Hollywood stars that were his first heroes, the details of Warhol's birth remain a matter of dispute: 6 August 1928 in Pittsburgh; 28 September 1928 in Forest City, Penn.; and 28 October 1928, also in Forest City, have been put forward by Warhol and others. Other years ranging from 1929 to 1933 and other locations, including Philadelphia, Cleveland, and McKeesport, Penn., have also circulated.8 Warhol was born Andrew Warhola, Jr.; he took the name Andy Warhol in 1949 after he established himself in New York City.
Warhol's parents were first-generation Czechoslovakian immigrants. His father, Andrej, was a blue-collar laborer; Julia, his mother, supplemented the family income with piecework handcrafts during the Depression. Later she would live with Warhol in New York.
Warhol graduated from Schenley High School in Pittsburgh in 1945. He then studied Pictorial Design at Carnegie Institute of Technology, graduating in 1949. At Carnegie Tech he formed a bond with painter Philip Pearlstein; the two lodged together in New York during the summer of 1949. Warhol quickly established himself in New York graphic design and "applied arts" circles, and in 1957 he founded Andy Warhol Enterprises, Inc., a commercial design firm. By 1958 he began to collect the work of contemporary artists, including Jasper Johns; in 1962 he purchased Duchamp's Box in a Valise (see AMAM inv. 73.13). In 1960 he produced paintings based on popular comic strips, including Popeye, Dick Tracy, and Nancy. In the summer of 1962 his Campbell's Soup Can paintings were shown at the Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles; the show aroused controversy but sold weakly. Subsequently, with the example of Robert Rauschenberg in mind, Warhol adopted photo silkscreen as the major vehicle for the production of his paintings. In the fall of 1962 his work was shown at the Stable Gallery in New York. In 1963 Warhol added filmmaking to his repertoire; he established a new studio on 47th street to accommodate his visual arts practice and the growing entourage that participated in its production. In 1964 he began to exhibit with Leo Castelli, then New York's most influential dealer of contemporary art. Warhol's fame and production burgeoned through the 1960s, the latter checked only by a near-fatal assassination attempt in 1968. Warhol's later career is characterized by a vast and multivalent production including paintings, graphics, films, advertising, books, and magazine publishing, coupled with an opaquely public reclusiveness openly modeled on Greta Garbo's retirement. He patronized younger artists, notably the Haitian-American Jean Michel Basquiat (1960-1988). He died after gall bladder surgery in New York City on 22 February 1987.
Andy Warhol. New York, 1968. Published on the occasion of the 1968 Stockholm exhibition.
Coplans, John. Andy Warhol. N. p., n.d.
Warhol, Andy, and Pat Hackett. Popism: The Warhol 60s. New York, 1980.
Smith, Patrick S. Andy Warhol's Art and Films. Ann Arbor, Mich., 1986.
Bourdon, David. Warhol. New York, 1989.
McShine, Kynaston, ed. Andy Warhol: A Retrospective. Exh. cat, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1989.
Mamiya, Christin J. Pop Art and Consumer Culture. Austin, Tex., 1992.
Doyle, Jennifer, et al., eds. Pop Out: Queer Warhol. Durham, N.C., 1996.
Gift of the artist to John Coplans (1970)
Lent to the museum by Coplans in January 1980, then given in memory of Ruth Roush in December 1980.
Warhol gave the Pasadena Art Museum one hundred boxes fabricated for the Andy Warhol exhibition, held 12 May - 21 June 1970. Oberlin's boxes were among a group of reserve boxes produced at this time but not exhibited. Nor have they subsequently been exhibited outside of the museum.
The Oberlin Brillo Boxes
Selected Literature on the Brillo Boxes as a group
C., L. [Lawrence Campbell]. "Andy Warhol." Art News 63, no. 4 (Summer 1964), p. 16.
T., S. [Sidney Tillim]. "Andy Warhol." Arts Magazine 38, no. 10 (September 1964), p. 62.
Danto, Arthur C. "The Artworld." The Journal of Philosophy 61 (1964), pp. 571-84.
Schwartz, Estelle. "Advertising, Advertising: Some Cases in Point." Artscribe International 71 (September-October 1988), pp. 70-74.
Danto, Arthur C. Beyond the Brillo Box: The Visual Arts in Post-Historical Perspective. New York, 1992.
Danto, Arthur C. "Andy Warhol: Brillo Box." Artforum 32, no. 1 (September 1993), pp. 128-29.
The Oberlin boxes were fabricated by the Jan Art Screen Processing Company of Pasadena in May 1970. Each box is constructed of five plywood sheets, glued together. These panels are painted with white semigloss paint and bear red-and-blue Brillo packaging emblems silkscreened on their surfaces. The bottom of each box is covered with a sheet of felt glued to the box, obscuring the material. It has been suggested that the bottom panel is cardboard. Close examination of each box reveals multiple minor paint losses and subsequent inpainting, similar to other Warhol boxes in public collections.
1. Eleanor Ward of Stable Gallery has described the flight of one female viewer from the first exhibition of the boxes: "She said that it reminded her of her mother's grocery store." Quoted from Christin Mamiya, Pop Art and Consumer Culture (Austin, Tex., 1992), p. 48.
2. Clement Greenberg, "Avant-Garde and Kitsch," in John O'Brien, ed., Clement Greenberg: The Collected Essays and Criticism, vol. 1 (Chicago, 1986), pp. 5-22. Originally published in The Partisan Review (Fall 1939), this famous essay was reprinted in a collection of Greenberg's writings entitled Art and Culture (Boston, 1961), making the text readily accessible to Warhol and his circle. A later formulation of Greenberg's theory of Modernism is presented in his 1960 essay "Modernist Painting," in O'Brien, op. cit., vol. 4, pp. 85-93 (originally published in Forum Lectures [Washington, D.C., 1960]).
3. See Mary Woronov, Swimming Underground: My Years in the Warhol Factory (Boston, 1995), pp. 91-92.
4. As Gluck later recalled, he chose " very nice boxes. You know, for grapefruit with maybe palm trees or crazy flamingos or some kind of oranges--maybe they would be called Blue Orchid Oranges, and the box would have a blue orchid on them." As interviewed by Patrick S. Smith, in Warhol: Conversations about the Artist (Ann Arbor, Mich., 1988), p. 67.
5.In an odd quirk of fate, the Brillo box design itself had been generated by James Harvey, an artist of the Abstract Expressionist generation moonlighting as a graphic designer. See Irving Sandler's remarks during an interview by Patrick S. Smith, in Warhol: Conversations about the Artist (Ann Arbor, Mich. 1988), p. 235.
6. Warhol and the poet-muse Malanga had worked together on many of Warhol's silkscreened paintings of this period.
7. Indeed, for later exhibitions, Warhol elected to have the boxes completely executed by outside fabricators.
8. See Patrick S. Smith, Andy Warhol's Art and Films (Ann Arbor, 1986), p. 13; Carter Ratcliff, Andy Warhol (New York, 1983), p. 117; Kynaston McShine, ed., Andy Warhol: A Retrospective (exh. cat., The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1989), pp. 401-2; David Bourdon, Warhol (New York, 1989), p. 14, among others. Given his circle of acquaintances in New York City, it is likely that Warhol was equally aware of James Abbott McNeill Whistler's similar (and largely successful) efforts to dissimulate the conditions of his birth.