Warhol unveiled the first Brillo Boxes at the Stable Gallery in New York in 1964. But the artist had been replicating grocery store products since 1962, first creating screenprints of Campbell’s soup cans, then sculptures of packaging for Kellogg’s cornﬂakes, Heinz ketchup, Brillo soap pads and other brands.
On 28 January 1964, Warhol moved into a new workspace, one of his many locations for his studio, The Factory. “A few days after the move… a truckload of wood boxes arrived,” recalled Gerard Malanga, Warhol’s studio assistant at the time.
These became the Brillo Boxes and other consumer product-inspired sculptures. Malanga and photographer Billy Linich (better known as Billy Name) first hand-painted each box, then Warhol and Malanga silkscreened the designs. “Completing the work took nearly six weeks, from early February well into mid-April,” Malanga said.
Warhol’s Brillo Box sculptures are life-size replicas of real shipping cartons by Brillo, a popular brand of American washing-up pads. At 17 x 17 x 14 inches in size, each authentic, cardboard Brillo box would have held 24 individual soup pads. Warhol’s Brillo Box, however, were constructed with plywood.
The real boxes for Brillo soap pads were designed in 1961 by James Harvey, a commercial artist by day and an Abstract Expressionist painter by night. When Harvey walked past Warhol’s Stable Gallery exhibition on 21 April 1964, he reportedly said, “Oh my god, I designed those.” Harvey did not consider Warhol’s appropriation as ‘art’.
In a 1964 interview, Warhol was asked by a reporter, “you have just then copied a common item… why have you bothered to do that, why not create something new?”, to which Warhol replied, “because it’s easier to do… it gives me something to do.”
Warhol had high hopes for his Brillo Boxes but their reception was controversial – art critics questioned if the sculptures were art, and one visitor to the Stable Gallery exhibition wrote “SHIT” in the guest book. Eleanor Ward, the art dealer at Stable Gallery at the time, remembered that the Brillo Boxes were “very difficult to sell…We all had visions of people walking down Madison Avenue with these boxes under their arms, but we never saw them.”
Warhol created three different designs for his Brillo Box sculptures, but the wooden, white, blue and red square version – often titled Brillo Box or Brillo Soap Pads – is possibly the most recognisable. A wooden, yellow, red and blue square version, titled Brillo Box (3 cents off), is among the most expensive at auction. In the late 1970s, Warhol also made a rectangular Brillo Box out of cardboard, in blue, red and white colours.
For a retrospective of his work at the Pasadena Art Museum from 12 May – 21 June 1970, Warhol created this screen-printed exhibition poster of a Brillo Box in a special green, blue and yellow colour variation. A hundred extra Brillo Box sculptures were also created for the event.
Like Campbell’s Soup Cans, Brillo Boxes epitomise Warhol’s fascination with mass-produced images, packaging and items, blurring the line between art and everyday commodities. Brillo Box sculptures are now in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Philadelphia Museum of Art and Princeton University Art Museum. This, in turn, has created high demand for Brillo Box sculptures at auction.
Artist Charles Lutz presented an art installation of replica cardboard Brillo Boxes at the Armory Show, New York, in 2013. Titled BABEL (Brillo Stockholm Type), the idea was to “disseminate the Brillo Box to the masses,” explained Lutz in a video interview with Blouin Artinfo. “Each day, a new BABEL tower is erected out of Brillo Boxes and each visitor is encouraged to take one, fulfilling Warhol’s idea of everyone in New York City carrying around a Brillo Box.”
Brillo Box (3 cents off) almost quadrupled its high estimate of $800,000 when it sold for $3,050,500 at Christie’s in New York on 10 November 2010. The sculpture was purchased in 1969 by Martin and Rita Skyler for just $1,000, and was later owned by British collector Charles Saatchi and Robert Shapazian, the late founding director of Gagosian Gallery.
Martin and Rita Skyler’s daughter Lisanne wrote and directed a documentary about Brillo Box (3 cents off). It was shortlisted for an Oscar award in 2016.