Art Cleans Up: the Story Behind the Brillo Box

  • Andy shops for inspiration.

  • "Brillo Box" Poufs by Quinze & Milan

  • Andy stands in front of a wall of his pine Brillo Boxes at a 1971 reprise of his 1964 landmark debut of this installation.

Context is everything.

On April 21, 1964, Andy Warhol marked his second exhibition by filling the Stable Gallery in New York with pine boxes silk screened exactly like the original boxes he found at his local supermarket packaging Brillo soap, Heinz ketchup, Campbell’s tomato juice, Mott’s apple juice, Kellogg’s cornflakes and Del Monte peach halves.

It was an exercise in firsts: the illustrator’s first showing of sculpture and the first works made in his new studio, which he dubbed the Factory. It was also a first for Arthur Danto, a philosopher from Columbia University. The Stable show proved as much a turning point for artist as it did the philosopher: Danto’s subsequent essay called “The Artworld” posited on what distinguishes a work of art from an object that is not art. Context is at the heart of it, he argued, and his case in point? Warhol’s Brillo box.

The many pine boxes measuring in at 17 1/8″ x 17″ x 14″ that Warhol and his team secured from the Havlicek Woodworking Company were silkscreened with synthetic polymer paint. But that is not what made them art. It was the very process, from selection to stacking in the gallery that marked this work, according to Danto, as the “end of Western art” as it was known before. (A break or not post-Duchamp and other new waves, Danto’s treatise raised his profile and is treasured in the field of aesthetics.)

Warhol was on the heels of his successful Campbell’s soup debut, and in the Brillo box likely found a similar visual pop. Warhol was reacting to the abstract expressionism of the previous years.

And herein lies another fun fact in this tale. The creator of the Brillo branding was James Harvey, a fine artist who turned to advertising when his work wasn’t covering the bills. Harvey was an abstract expressionist. Raw and visceral a style, Harvey no doubt employed the evocative boldness in his day job. While he and his gallerist were not thrilled over Warhol’s appropriation, it didn’t stop Harvey from chatting with Warhol at the Stable opening—though he apparently did not reveal he was the designer behind it all.

Flash forward, the Belgium brand Quinze & Milan decided to reimagine the pine Brillo box as a foam pouf. It’s still silk screened. But it’s firmly soft enough to sit on. At 15″ squared, it’s also slightly smaller than the original. With this rendition the commonplace soap box that became artwork becomes a functional furnishing to sit on or use as a table.

Is it design or art? You make the call. Context, after all, is everything.

To celebrate the 30 year anniversary of Andy Warhol’s death on February 22, 1987, in an exclusive with Q & M, A+R is thrilled to be offering the Brillo Pouf at a special price of $376 now through June 1, 2017.

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Rose Apodaca