In 2010, one of just 17 known yellow Brillo box sculptures by Andy Warhol came up for auction at Christie’s, where it sold for more than triple its high estimate. Forty years before “Brillo Box (3¢ off)” (1963–64) hammered down for $3.05 million, Lisanne Skyler was an infant climbing on it in her parents’ living room. Her new documentary, Brillo Box (3¢ off), which premiered last week on HBO, tracks that sculpture’s journey from Warhol’s Factory studio to dealer Ivan Karp’s gallery OK Harris, to the Skylers’ apartment, and out into the art market’s churning channels. In doing so, the 40-minute documentary offers a capsule history of the explosion of the market for postwar art, Warhol’s especially, as well as a biography of sorts of the object itself — a story that is most remarkable for its level of transparency in a notoriously opaque art world.
In 1969, Edward Skyler, an assistant district attorney in New York with a budding interest in contemporary art, was introduced to Karp, the taste-making dealer, who sold him the Brillo box sculpture. Though the smaller, yellow Brillo Box sculptures had been priced at $200 apiece when they had their debut at Stable Gallery in 1964 — when they were almost universally panned — the Skylers bought theirs five years later for $1,000. A precursor to today’s flippers, Skyler didn’t hold on to it for long, trading it in 1971 for a painting by Peter Young, a somewhat obscure Op art painter who at the time seemed to have better odds of becoming a household name than Warhol. “It wasn’t purely for the money, but the fact that you could make money made it all the more enjoyable,” Skyler recalls.
The sculpture resurfaced in 1988, the year after Warhol’s death, when the British advertising mogul and collector Charles Saatchi bought it for $35,200. Five years later, it crossed back over the Atlantic when a New York collector bought it for $47,500, and two years later it sold for the same price to Robert Shapazian, the dealer who ran Larry Gagosian’s Beverly Hills gallery. It sat in Shapazian’s living room, along with a half-dozen other box sculptures by Warhol, until his death in 2010, when it was consigned to the November 10 evening sale of postwar and contemporary art, and ultimately sold for about 63 times its 1995 price (to an unnamed collector).
Skyler, the director, contextualizes the object’s journey with glimpses of her family’s relationship to the work — her father’s tendency to trade up; her mother’s tendency to get attached to pieces — and the shifts in critical consensus on Warhol. Former Andy Warhol Museum director Eric Shiner (now, not incidentally, an auction house man), art dealer Kenny Schacter, and the producer of Andy Warhol: A Documentary Film Daniel Wolf, all frame Warhol as an artist decades ahead of his time with whom the market (and the culture at large) has finally caught up. “The world is more Warholian today than it was when he died,” Wolf says.
Brillo Box (3¢ off) does hold its fair share of fascinating historical tidbits, like that Warhol was criticized for appropriating the soap company’s packaging design by supporters of James Harvey, the Abstract Expressionist artist who created it at his day job as a graphic designer. Meanwhile, Brillo — unlike other companies, some of which sent him cease-and-desist letters — did not object to Warhol’s screenprinted copies. Nonetheless, it feels slightly superficial, not delving especially deeply into any of its subjects (an unfair criticism to level at a short film, some might say) and presenting a version of the (art) world scrubbed clean as if with a Brillo soap pad.