‘Brillo Box’ – Ode to an Appropriated Object

Brillo Box (3 ¢ off)

dir. Lisanne Skyler

on HBO tonight

Provenance research on an Andy Warhol Brillo Box? Lisanne Skyler explains how her parents acquired and parted with that object in an entertaining and amusing walk back into family history that plays on HBO tonight.

Here’s my review from The Art Newspaper when the 40-minute doc made its debut last year at the NY Film Festival.

Warhol – in Cardboard, in the Family, on the Block

Brillo Box (3 ¢ off) at the New York Film Festival

By David D’Arcy

A Brillo Box has a provenance, and it’s the subject of a charming and clever documentary film. The 1964 box by Andy Warhol passed from the filmmaker Lisanne Skyler’s family in Manhattan, through the hands of Charles Saatchi and another notable collector, and finally to an auction in New York, where the object that sold for $1000 in 1969 brought more than $3 million.

Brillo Box (3 ¢ off), at the New York Film Festival (eventually to air on HBO), doesn’t track a record price. Yet it does give us the trajectory of an object purchased as an art novelty that turned out to be a shrewd investment, especially for the collector who paid more than $40,000 for it in the 1990’s.

The work in question is a large yellow box – as distinguished from the standard white —  on which (3 ¢ off) is emblazoned. The original design, for Brillo, was by James Harvey, an Abstract Expressionist painter who had a day job as a product designer.

Appropriated by Warhol in 1964, the box was sold in 1969 by Warhol’s dealer, Ivan Karp, of the OK Harris Gallery in New York to Martin and Rita Skyler, the filmmaker’s parents, who had just begun collecting art.

“I used Brillo,” declared Ms. Skyler, describing how the Brillo Box defined a zeitgeist for her. Martin Skyler, a young lawyer then, was careful to have it signed by Warhol, a rarity that would boost its value, yet Skyler traded it two years later for a painting by the psychedelically inspired Peter Young.

Eventually Charles Saatchi would buy the box at Christie’s in 1988 for $35,000. After another sale at Christie’s during the slump of the early 1990’s, Robert Shapazian of Gagosian Gallery’s Los Angeles outpost acquired it in 1995 for $43,700. Shapazian exhibited the box with other Warhol boxes in his living room until his death in 2010. (Shapazian left a note behind that said, “art – the Warhol – had the power to help confirm to me that the past was over.”)

His estate sold it at Christie’s. The film does not name the buyer at that sale.

On one level, Brillo Box can be seen as the classic tale of the work of art that got away – from the Skylers.  The couple talk of taking a chance in buying the box, covering it in plexi-glass, and using it as a coffee table. “I don’t think I would put a drink on it, but it was in the living room, and it could be Windexed,” says Rita Skyler.

Explaining the trade of a now-valuable object for a work by now-obscure Peter Young, Mr. Skyler says, “It wasn’t a piece that you fell in love with. When you get right down to it, it really wasn’t all that attractive….

It was just a yellow box with some red lettering on it, basically.”

“I got something that hung on the wall rather than something that sat on the floor,” he said, without emotion, of the work by Peter Young.

If these sound like deadpan reflections, they are outdone in the film by Warhol himself, who is seen in archival footage. When asked to define Pop Art, he shrugs: “Why don’t you ask Ivan [Karp]?”

When an interviewer asks Warhol why he makes Brillo Boxes instead of something original,” he responds, “Because it’s easier.”

The film confronts the inevitable Warhol-Is-Us view of the art market as buyers drove prices upward, beating the Standard and Poor’s Index. “He got what we were about. It’s about selling, it’s about making something appealing to be bought,” says Daniel Wolf, the director of his own 2006 Warhol documentary, in an interview, “We buy, we shop, we own, we have.”

And the Skyler family did have art, just not Warhol’s Brillo Box. Lisanne Skyler quotes her mother’s common-sense version of an art market truth: “Just because something seems to have lost its value now, doesn’t mean you won’t wish you had it later.”

That observation might apply, not just to Warhol, but to Peter Young, who told Martin Skyler when the two first met, “Why are you buying art? You should be buying real estate.”

Young, who got the best of Warhol (with the Skylers, at least) reappears in Brillo Box, when he has his first New York show in 30 years at Algus Greenspun Gallery.

“I’m 75 years old, and I’m going to drop one of these seasons,” says Young, who relocated to Arizona, he noted, to escape the fickleness of the market. “Then my paintings will quadruple in value.”

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