One Piece at a Time

Warhol’s Brillo Box

Joe Grennier gets inside Andy Warhol's iconic Pop Art about an iconic American Brand.

By - Jul 23rd, 2012 10:59 am
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Andy Warhol (American, 1928–1987) Brillo Box, 1964 Screenprint ink on wood 17 1/16 x 14 1/8 x 17 1/8 in. (43.34 x 35.88 x 43.5 cm) Gift of Mrs. Harry Lynde Bradley M1975.172 Photo credit Larry Sanders © 2010 The Andy Warho Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Go to an art museum, pick a work, stand before it for a long time. Tell us what you see. TCD’s One Piece at a Time series began with that thought in the summer of 2010. TCD senior editor Tom Strini handled the One-Piece duties then and in 2011. This summer, we have a variation. In the winter and spring, Strini worked with a class of graduate students in art at UWM. They did the One Piece drill at the Milwaukee Art Museum, wrote draft essays, then survived a writer’s boot camp with Strini. We’re publishing the results, one piece at a time. Joe Grennier, artist and graphic designer, is our third contributor.

Andy Warhol, a highly successful commercial artist before he became famous in the fine-art world, was enamored of the advertising imagery we take for granted as we browse the aisles of our favorite stores.

Warhol elevated and celebarted this imagery in his own art. But how did he choose his subjects? In the case of his soup cans, Warhol claims to have eaten Campbell’s for lunch nearly every day, pointing to proximity, familiarity and ritual. But what of the Brillo boxes, like the one in the permanent collection of the Milwaukee Art Museum?

In typical Warhol fashion, the work closely resembles its title and inspiration. Warhol made a near-exact replica of a case of Brillo soap pads. Consider the appropriated imagery: The flag-waving red and blue text are too overt for a subliminal message. Rather, it’s as if Brillo executives truly believed a sense of national pride would well up every time you scoured pots and pans.

The wave forms mirrored on the top and bottom of the logo are eerily hypnotic, and for good reason. One, they form incomplete ovals, which the eye repeatedly fills in, and two, if we connect both the peaks of the waves and the adjacent corners, we would end up with a horizontal figure eight, or infinity symbol. If we manage to pull ourselves away from these clever devices, we see advertising tropes: Giant-Sized, New! Fast! More prosaically: Rust Resister,  and the stamp BRILLO MFG. CO. INC. BROOKLYN, N.Y. The Brillo factory address, by the way, is suspiciously close in proximity to that of Warhol’s own Factory. He certainly would have seen these boxes ready for shipment. Each of these elements provides a possible entry point into Warhol’s process of selection.

Appropriation from popular and consumerist culture and factory-style production techniques quickly propelled Warhol into Pop Art superstardom. (And defendant in numerous copyright lawsuits, many settled out of court.) However, Brillo Box and similar works were not initially well received; many critics rejected them outright as works of art.

Warhol expressed his high regard for the formal qualities of package design at a time when Abstract Expressionism — imprecise, intuitive, emotionally charged — dominated American art. Coincidentally, James Harvey, creator of the Brillo logo, was an Abstract Expressionist painter who worked in commercial design to make ends meet. The work’s cube-like form also recalls Minimalist sculpture, making it undoubtedly a dialogue with the popular styles of the day and a commentary on consumer and commercial culture, including that on the walls of prominent galleries and museums.

Warhol’s Brillo Box can pass, at first, for “the real thing.” But tiny imperfections — chipped and bubbling paint, the absence of fold-in flaps for sealing and taping — tip the fact that the box is made of wood, not cardboard.

The average consumer-turned-art-critic would likely have never seen this larger package, which was for transportation and distribution rather than store display. But anyone would have recognized the familiar logo and bold, patriotic colors of this household brand. Today’s consumers are more likely to have seen Warhol’s work than his source, since Brillo’s logo and box design have changed significantly since the 1964 version that attracted Warhol’s attention. We are also more fluent in the language of advertising and pop art; we see Warhol’s art and through it to  a product — or reproduction thereof — intended for purchase and use.

Warhol’s impulse to appropriate, elevate and preserve such products and their iconography well beyond their typical life spans was and remains controversial, but it is undeniably intriguing.

Previously on the summer of 2012 One Piece at a Time Series: Eric Roman Beining on Torso of a Male Athlete; Aneesha Baldeosingh on Jules Olitski’s Heat Resistance.

Categories: A/C Feature 2, Art

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