Review: In HBO’s ‘Brillo Box,’ the true story of how a $1,000 purchase became a $3-million Warhol work of art

Art Critic

Apparently, we can’t get enough of Andy Warhol — or, at least the mythos of Andy Warhol, dead now for more than 30 years.

The latest example is “Brillo Box (3¢ Off),” a pleasant if rather inconsequential documentary that debuts Monday on HBO. The narrative follows the life of a Warhol Brillo box sculpture, one of dozens he and his assistant, Gerard Malanga, produced between 1963 and 1964.

Most of them are ordinary plywood cubes in the product’s conventional red-white-and-blue color scheme. White boxes were silk-screened to simulate the commercial cardboard containers in which boxes of the familiar steel wool pad were shipped.

But a few, including this one, overlay Brillo’s red and blue logo onto a box painted yellow rather than white. (Warhol, following the lead of erstwhile house painter and then Abstract Expressionist titan Willem de Kooning — his hero — used house paint.) The vivid result is a box sporting the primary triad in a standard artist's color wheel.

Warhol was a native of Pittsburgh — Steel City, as it was known, back when belching furnaces made it one of the largest (and dirtiest) producers of industrial steel in the world. Already a hugely successful commercial artist in New York, he was rapidly transitioning into the burgeoning Manhattan art world, where his paintings of soup cans and celebrities had finally begun to attract attention.

The steel wool cartons were produced in tandem with the first self-portraits of the Steel City artist. Warhol’s Brillo box sculptures — more accurately regarded as three-dimensional paintings — were semi-autobiographical artistic packaging.

You won’t find out any of that in the documentary, though, which is less about Warhol’s art than it is about the unpredictable art market.

The parents of writer and director Lisanne Skyler were active if modest art collectors in New York, and in 1969 they plunked down $1,000 at OK Harris Works of Art in Soho for the yellow Brillo box. It was the second work of art they bought. Two years later they sold it — the price is unrecorded — although not before using the sculpture as an apartment-size coffee table. A family album snapshot shows baby Lisanne happily perched atop it.

Baby Lisanne Skyler on the Warhol Brillo box sculpture in 1969. (HBO)

Subsequently it passed through several hands, including those of London advertising magnate and mega-collector Charles Saatchi, before ending up in Los Angeles. Collector Robert Shapazian acquired it at auction for $43,700 in 1995, the same year he became the founding director of Gagosian Gallery in Beverly Hills.

Unlike Martin Skyler, the director’s father, who is characterized in the film as always having had an investment angle to his art collecting, Shapazian never did. Working at Gagosian he learned to respect collecting motives different from his own. But Shapazian was at heart an intellectual (his Harvard Ph.D was in English literature) and, in matters of art, largely self-taught.

Shapazian died in 2010. He bequeathed another Brillo box and a small Warhol Campbell’s soup can painting to the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens in San Marino. But the red-yellow-blue “Brillo Box (3¢ Off),” along with additional Warhol works and art by other notable artists, was posthumously consigned to Christie’s.

“Brillo Box (3¢ Off)” set a surprise auction record, nearly quadrupling its estimate and pulling down $2,650,500, plus a $400,500 buyer’s premium for Christie’s.

Some coffee table.

Skyler tracked down painter Peter Young — the notable if less commercially successful artist whose abstract painting her father bought with the money from his 1971 sale of the Warhol — for an interview. Young had decamped for Bisbee, Ariz., not long after a successful New York debut landed him on the once-prestigious cover of Artforum magazine, rebuffing the mercenary Manhattan art system to which Warhol so dearly craved admission.

The differences between Warhol and Young couldn’t be greater, artistically or temperamentally. Wisely, no judgment is offered on which is the appropriate path for an artist to take, since artists must do what they choose to do. And it’s worth noting that Young’s work — complex geometric abstractions — has been enjoying something of a late-career revival in recent years.

It’s hard to know quite why the documentary was made, however, except as a personal story of a familial brush with brief art world notoriety. It’s a simple tale of serendipity — of a sculpture that broke an auction record.

The film (produced by Skyler and Judith Black and edited by Jeanna French) does have a reasonably cavalier attitude about the huge hike in monetary value that the yellow Brillo box underwent over nearly four decades, and that’s refreshing. Wiser still, it is anything but a lament for lost riches.

‘Brillo Box (3 Cents Off)’

Where: HBO

When: 10 p.m. Monday

Twitter: @KnightLAT


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