With their bright colours and simple, catchy design, Ten Brillo Boxes are part of Warhol's extension of his Pop aesthetic into the realm of sculpture. Piled in any combination that we see fit, with these boxes Warhol managed to create an artform that truly - arguably more than his pictures - encapsulated his ultra-modern philosophy. This is an art that is open to all, that we can arrange and rearrange like building bricks at our own discretion, Warhol insisting that we have the right as much as he does to take part in an artistic process that, as we can see from the subject matter, has been democratised and made open for all. In Ten Brillo Boxes, the sheer number of boxes available provides us with infinite possibilities for these arrangements. It is in the repeated box that we begin to perceive the impact that these works had on the public in the 1960s. The regularity and repetition of the same box is, visually, incredibly strong and it is easy to see why these geometric forms would, directly or indirectly, spawn an entire discipline of Minimalism.
Warhol's Brillo Boxes were among the most ground-breaking and thought-provoking works of his entire career. Breaking into three dimensions, Warhol created sculptures that mimicked their subjects with uncanny realism. In a sense, this marked the apogee of representational art, Warhol managing to almost perfectly imitate the building blocks of the world around us and the lives we live. In another era, such a successful rendering of a real object would have earned unequivocal praise and congratulation, yet while these sculptures were praised by some in the 1960s, they were damned by others. Warhol had taken the line between art and reality and blurred it more completely than any other artist before. For his Brillo Boxes look exactly like Brillo boxes (as was demonstrated when a group of them was to be exhibited in Canada: the customs authorities insisted that the boxes be taxed as merchandise, not art, a decision that was finally backed up by the then director of the National Gallery of Canada).
It is thus only apt that one of the first major write-ups of the Brillo Boxes occurred not in any of the art journals, but instead in The Journal of Philosophy. There, as early as 1964, Arthur C. Danto spent a chapter of his essay 'The Artworld' exploring the impact of the Brillo Boxes on the analysis of the time-honoured and unanswerable question, 'What is Art?':
'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', pp. 269-78, Pop Art: A Critical History, S.H. Madoff (ed.), Berkeley & London, 1997, p. 275).
While this passage appears to vindicate Warhol's choice of subject matter and medium, there was still a public uproar at the absurdity of these works. However, absurdity was a key ingredient of Warhol's art. By taking the act of representation to an absurd new level, Warhol was managing to question the entire nature of representation and the value of art. Warhol expressly used humble, everyday boxes as his subject matter, in the same way that he had previously used humble, everyday Campbell's Soup cans in his paintings (for his sculptures, he expressly used boxes that had contained popular, everyday products, and nothing flashy). However, Warhol's sculpture tested the bounds of art in far more dramatic ways. While the Soup Cans came as a shock to the system when they were first exhibited in the Ferus Gallery in 1962, they were clearly pictures, and their context an art gallery combined with their scale and their medium made it clear that they were not imitations of their subjects. They had merely tested the bounds of suitable subject matter. The Brillo Boxes, which almost completely resemble the cartons that they imitate, make these judgements about where art begins and ends far more complicated. When Warhol exhibited them in the Stable Gallery for the first time in 1964, he accentuated this by piling them, along with his sculptures of boxes of other products (soups, juices and cornflakes), awkwardly high. Thus the gallery was transformed into the semblance of a warehouse, filled with crates.
Some people interpret the piled Brillo Boxes, among other works, as ironic attacks on the commercial nature of the artworld, but this is too limited and simplistic a reading. Warhol was a man of his era, but importantly also looked to the future. He hoped to create an art that was open to the public. Rather than celebrating, not lampooning, its commercial nature, trying to create a more democratic form of art and art market. Thus he hoped that his art would become a commodity like Coca-Cola, part of the great levelling American tradition: 'What's great about this country is that America started the tradition where the richest consumers buy essentially the same things as the poorest. You can be watching TV and see Coca-Cola, and you can know that the President drinks Coke, Liz Taylor drinks Coke, and just think, you can drink Coke too' (Warhol, quoted in K. Honnef, Andy Warhol 1928-1987 Commerce into Art, Cologne, 2000, p. 26). So in the Ten Brillo Boxes, Warhol has taken a product so endemic it has entered the English language, and has, by massing the cartons together, created a monumental tribute to the everyday world and the people within it.