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In early 1964, Andy Warhol embarked upon an elaborate and meticulously executed project—his first significant undertaking in the now-famous Factory on East 47th street in Manhattan—which became known as the Brillo box sculptures. The scope of this project could be termed “epic” in scale, and resulted in hundreds of hand-crafted and painted boxes, which were then displayed in a groundbreaking exhibition at the Stable Gallery in New York, on April 21, 1964. The present set of four boxes, all hand-painted and signed by the artist, were produced in the Factory during the months of March and April of that year. These boxes feature alongside Warhol in the famous photograph of the artist by Ken Heyman and remarkably have remained as a group since 1969, the year they were acquired by their original owners, Helga and Walter Lauffs.
On January 28, 1964, several hundred wooden boxes arrived at the Factory, ordered by Malanga from a woodworking shop on East 17th street. The working process that Warhol instigated very much mimicked a factory production line. Malanga recalled: “A few days after the move to our workspace, January 28th, a truckload of wood boxes arrive, individually wrapped and taped in clear plastic sheeting. And so would begin the arduous task of taping the floor with rolls of brown paper and setting out each box in a grid-like pattern of eight rows lengthwise. ...Billy Name and I would take turns painting with Liquitex all six sides of each box. …We waited until the paint dried. Andy and I repeated this process silkscreening all five sides again down the line. The sixth side—the bottom side—remained blank. ...Completing the work took nearly six weeks, from early February well into mid-April” (G. Malanga, Archiving Warhol: Writings and Photographs, New York, 2002, pp. 147-8).
That Warhol would select such an industrious project as the first major series to be created in the Factory, which he moved into earlier that year, illustrates the importance of the Brillo boxes in Warhol’s oeuvre, and expands upon the ideas he first developed with his Campbell’s Soup Cans of 1962. Warhol designated seven boxes for the enterprise (four of which are included in the present lot)—Heinz Tomato Ketchup, Del Monte Peaches, Kellogg’s Corn Flakes, Campbell’s Tomato Juice, Mott’s Apple Sauce and two types of Brillo Box. According to Malanga, “Andy was fascinated by the shelves of foodstuffs in supermarkets and the repetitive, machine-like effect they created” (G. Malanga, quoted in ibid., p. 94). The homogenized, factory-produced nature of the products—each conveniently packaged in shelf-stable cartons—must have appealed to him.
Some of the boxes were exhibited at the Dwan Gallery in Los Angeles from February 2nd until February 29th in a show called Boxes, but the majority were shown at Eleanor Ward’s Stable Gallery in New York on April 21, 1964. The Stable show proved to be truly revolutionary, adding another level of notoriety to Warhol’s growing reputation. In what might be termed the first instance of “installation art,” Warhol packed literally hundreds of boxes inside the gallery’s 74th street location. The front room included about 100 Brillo box sculptures, all rendered in red and blue on white, while Kellogg’s Corn Flakes were in the rear gallery. Campbell’s Tomato Juice boxes were scattered along the floor and Heinz Ketchup boxes were stacked neatly as in a grocery stockroom. On opening night, a line stretched down the block and gallery-goers giggled as they squeezed into the small rooms that were packed with Warhol’s boxes. Critics were utterly flabbergasted. Lawrence Campbell, writing for Art News, described the show: “Andy Warhol is the most extreme of the Pop artists, and his shows are invariably more interesting as ideas. …The result is that his exhibitions have the power of shocking and arousing indignation. …There was a curious effect on the gallery; it became the storage room of an A&P. And the A&P became an art gallery—one found oneself avoiding the cartons as though they had suddenly become valuable” (L. Campbell, “Andy Warhol,” Art News, vol. 63, no. 4 (Summer 1964), p. 16).
Though Warhol’s boxes deliberately copy their real-life cardboard counterparts, it is telling to note that Warhol did not simply exhibit the original boxes, but rather created a hand-crafted facsimile. Unlike Duchamp, whose readymades were exhibited simply as they were, with no direct artist involvement, Warhol’s boxes were hand-crafted in wood and painted in a way that still displays the unique hand of the artist. True, Warhol employed silkscreens to render the box logos, but each box is unique, in that the imperfections and variations of Warhol’s technique vary from box to box. Further, because they are constructed of wood rather than cardboard, the boxes can never be opened. They exist in a perpetual state of newness.
Arthur C. Danto, in a much-cited article for the Journal of Philosophy from 1964, famously questioned the nature of Warhol’s boxes: if the boxes were simply facsimiles of their real-world counterparts, how could they be perceived as art? The question haunted the famous critic and historian for the remainder of his life. In an article from 2009, Danto looked back on the work, describing its significance: “Because of the success of his first show at the Stable Gallery, Andy attained a degree of celebrity unshared by other artists in the Pop movement. …More than any artist of comparable importance, Andy intuited the great changes that made the 1960s the Sixties, and helped shape the era he lived through, so that his art both became part of his times and transcended them. …He changed the concept of art itself, so that his work induced a transformation in art’s philosophy so deep that it was no longer possible to think of art in the same way that it had been thought of even a few years before him. … One thing that has to be said about the Brillo Boxes is that they are beautiful. My wife and I have lived with one for years, and I still marvel at its beauty. Why live with dull anesthetic objects? Why not objects as beautiful as Brillo Box?” (A. C. Danto, “The Brillo Box,” Andy Warhol, 2009, pp. 47-8; 66).