In its precise copy of the catchy commercial design, Andy Warhol’s Brillo Soap Pads Box, 1964, presented a radical rethinking of understandings of the art object. Using plywood and silkscreen, he closely mimicked the red and blue design of one of the United States’ most recognizable products. They were uncannily naturalistic, an effect further underscored by the first exhibition of the Brillo Boxes, for which Warhol curated Stable Gallery as if it was a supermarket display. If for much of art history, painting served as a mirror to the world, Brillo Soap Pads Box instead challenged the belief in verisimilitude and fundamentally questioned the meaning that images construct. Although deceptively simple in their design, the Brillo Boxes present a ground-breaking and thought-provoking challenge to accepted ideas governing aesthetics.
Warhol was already painting American consumer products two years earlier, and his Campbell's Soup Cans, 1962, and Coca Cola, 1962, built off his earlier work as a successful commercial illustrator. Both works took their subjects from contemporary mass culture, and evince the artist’s earliest forays into appropriation. Warhol hand painted these canvases, endeavouring to capture the slick contours and meticulous details of both products. If these two works were brought to the fore questions of appropriation, Warhol further extended such conceptual considerations with his Brillo Soap Pads Box. Unlike Campbell’s Soup Cans or Coca Cola, the Brillo Soap Pads Box was a three-dimensional object that could be handled and moved in the same manner as its real-world counterpart. Moreover, by stacking the boxes in a variety of combinations, Warhol removed the need for a plinth, thereby obliterating any separation between art and actual life. Art, Warhol seemed to say, was open to all.
By making sculptures that looked very much like consumer products, Warhol expanded upon Marcel Duchamp’s earlier provocation. For his Fountain, 1917, the artist purchased a urinal from a wholesaler, tipped it on its side, and signed it R. Mutt; initially, no one knew the work was by Duchamp. He then submitted it to the Salon des Indépendants, where the board summarily rejected the work. Debates amongst critics and viewers concerned whether the work constituted an art object. Arguing his own case soon afterward in the Dada magazine The Blind Man, Duchamp wrote, ‘Whether Mr. Mutt with his own hands made the fountain or not has no importance. He CHOSE it. He took an ordinary article of life, placed it so that that tis useful significance disappeared under the new title and point of view—created a new thought for the object’ (M. Duchamp quoted in The Blind Man, reprinted in C. Tomkins, The Bride and the Bachelors: Five Masters of the Avant-Garde, New York, 1962, p. 41). For Brillo Soap Pads Box, Warhol inverted Duchamp’s gesture: instead of choosing a product to call it art, he made art that perfectly replicated a consumer product. In fact, the Brillo Boxes were so convincing that, when shipped to Canada for an exhibition, customs authorities insisted the boxes be taxed as merchandise.
But what is lifelike art, if not a replica of life itself? Contemplating his own reactions to the Brillo Boxes, Arthur Danto wrote, ‘Mr. Andy Warhol, the Pop artist, displays facsimiles of Brillo cartons, piled high, in neat stacks, as in the stockroom of the supermarket. They happen to be made of wood, painted to look like cardboard, and why not? To paraphrase the critic of the Times, if one may make a facsimile of a human being out of bronze, why not the facsimile of a Brillo carton out of plywood?' (A.C. Danto, ‘The Artworld’, 1964, reprinted in in S.H. Madoff (ed.), Pop Art: A Critical History, London, 1997, p. 275). In collapsing the divide between art and life, Warhol offered a new way of seeing and a new set of aesthetic criteria, and Brillo Soap Pads Box represents a fundamental shift from art about the world to art of the world.