Held for over two decades in Leo Castelli’s personal collection before it was acquired by the present owner in 1987, Brillo Soap Pads Box (1964) marks the moment that Andy Warhol joined forces with the supreme gallerist of the Pop era. These iconic sculptures – perfect silkscreened plywood replicas of boxes of Brillo scouring pads – were first exhibited in April 1964 at a major solo show at Stable Gallery, New York. Warhol filled the gallery space with stacks of recreated wholesale supermarket cartons, also including Campbell’s tomato juice, canned Del Monte peach halves, Heinz tomato ketchup, Mott’s apple juice and Kellogg’s Cornflakes. The installation, Warhol’s first sculptural project, was a pivotal moment in art history. It was met with bewilderment and controversy at the time, and few of the works were sold. Several months later, when Warhol partnered with the powerhouse dealer Castelli, a number of unsold Brillo boxes were consigned to his new gallerist. One of the most revered figures of New York’s post-war art scene, Castelli bridged the gap from 1950s proto-Pop artists such as Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg to fully-fledged Pop Art, and is widely credited with the comprehensive launch of the movement. He used the present Brillo Soap Pads Box – protected in Plexiglas – as a side table in his living room, where it supported his telephone and kept company with masterpieces such as Johns’s Target with Plaster Casts (1955) and Rauschenberg’s Bed (1955), which he later gifted to the Museum of Modern Art, New York.
With its bold blue-and-red branding, Brillo Soap Pads Box epitomises the visual environment of 1960s commerce that Warhol so ingeniously appropriated. It represents a move forward from the Duchampian ‘readymade’ object to the simulacrum, remaking an everyday item as an artwork of provocative formal impact. The philosopher-critic Arthur C. Danto was one of the few to recognise the boxes’ significance in 1964. ‘Mr. Andy Warhol, the Pop artist, displays facsimiles of Brillo cartons, piled high, in neat stacks, as in the stockroom of the supermarket’, he wrote. ‘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 Art World’, 1964, in S. H. Madoff (ed.), Pop Art: A Critical History, Berkeley & London 1997, p. 275).
The genesis of this series can be traced to 1962, when Warhol made boxes featuring the infamous paintings of Campbell’s Soup cans which he had exhibited earlier that year. ‘I did the cans on the box, but it came out looking funny’, he recalled. ‘I had the boxes already made up. They were brown and looked just like boxes, so I thought it would be great just to do an ordinary box … Brillo liked it, but Campbell’s Soup, they were really upset’ (A. Warhol, quoted in G. O’Brien, ‘Interview: Andy Warhol’, High Times, 24 August 1977). Preparing for the Stable Gallery show, he asked his assistant Nathan Gluck to fetch cartons from a nearby grocery store as source material. Gluck returned with some garish boxes that had held exotic fruit, which Warhol rejected, demanding instead the most basic, quotidian packaging Gluck could find. He then had plywood boxes fabricated for the Brillo pads, peach halves and other household goods at the precise scale of the originals, which were subsequently screenprinted with imitation logos and lettering.
The Brillo boxes’ graphic power and formal audacity has made them an enduring, emblematic image of Warhol’s practice, rivalling even Marilyn Monroe or the Campbell’s Soup can as his definitive icon. In an intriguing twist, the original Brillo design had been conceived by James Harvey, an artist of the Abstract Expressionist generation who worked in consumer branding on the side; Harvey was also responsible for the red-and-white packaging of Marlboro cigarettes. Warhol himself had worked as a commercial illustrator before his shift into fine art in 1961. With works like Brillo Soap Pads Box, he would forever change the relationship between these fields. The groundbreaking serial, mechanised nature of his Pop production – centred at his ‘Factory’ on East 47th Street – collapsed the boundary between art and everyday life. Indeed, the Brillo boxes were so convincing that when a number were shipped to Canada for an exhibition in early 1965, customs officials insisted they be taxed as merchandise rather than sculpture. In Warhol’s hands, art was no longer a depiction of the world, but its uncanny double.