Recently an artist named Lucy Sparrow opened a bodega in New York City’s Meatpacking District, in which every single product, from produce to magazines to toilet paper, was made of felt and sewed by hand. And with 9,000 felt objects selling for nearly $70, the shop became swamped with tourists and ultimately had to close early after it sold out of the little felt trinkets.
In 2017 there is no question that Sparrow’s exercise is art. Nor is there any question that artists like Jeff Koons, Richard Prince, or Cory Arcangel—who often reinterpret artifacts of popular culture (video games, Marlboro ads) or replicate them exactly (even to the point of lawsuits)—deserve to be shown in museums. Today, appropriation is par for the course when it comes to contemporary art.
But a new documentary from HBO depicts a time in the art world that may as well be prehistoric by today’s standards: an era in which people couldn’t understand the appeal of this kind of art, especially when it came to the work of a little-known troll named Andy Warhol.
Director Lisanne Skyler’s new documentary short Brillo Box (3¢ OFF), which debuts tonight, tells a personal story about her parents who collected art frequently in the 1960s and 1970s. They were in the business to bet on young artists in the hopes of making serious investments for the future, and works by great artists like Frank Stella and Chuck Close floated in and out of Skyler’s childhood as her parents frequently overturned their collection for bright new names. But it was one of Andy Warhol’s Brillo Box works (the charming 3 cents off version) that captivated Skyler in particular, mainly because it was the “one that got away.” And by “got away,” I mean had the Skylers kept on to their piece, which actually had a rare Warhol signature at the behest of Lisanne’s father, they might have turned their initial $1,000 purchase into a $3 million sale 40 years later.
The Skylers bought their Brillo Box for $1,000 in 1969 and it was clear, through family photo albums Skyler makes great use of, the artwork was a living, breathing piece in their lives. Behind plexiglass, the family used it as a coffee table or even to sit Lisanne on as a baby. “People used to say, put the groceries away!” Skyler’s mother says of party guests who saw the Brillo Box and didn’t get it. To be fair, neither did the art world; when trying to exhibit the boxes in Canada the artworks were infamously denied at the border because they “weren’t original sculpture.” When Warhol was asked if he agreed with that assessment he grinned and said “they really weren’t original sculpture.”
It’s clear that Skyler was trying to make a movie about the more personal aspects of art-collecting, focusing on how she and her family grew so attached to these works but ultimately let them go. But Brillo Box (3¢ OFF) is best when it’s documenting not just the futile turns art-collecting can take, but about how an artist like Andy Warhol once seemed to be a failure.
The Skylers ultimately traded in their Brillo Box for a psychedelic painting by artist Peter Young—who is not exactly someone you’d learn about in an Art History 101 class, something they both admittedly regret on screen. It’s hard, as a viewer, to not blame them for seeing something that feels so obvious now, even as the celebrity-obsessed Warhol seemed increasingly like a joke in the ‘70s and ‘80s. What the documentary makes clear is that if there was ever an artist not to underestimate, it was Warhol. His profile didn’t just rise after his death but seemingly became the tonal standard for art right now: tongue-in-cheek, readymade, and accessible. And through the personal failure of the Skylers, Brillo Box (3¢ OFF) plays like a perfect fable about how we can’t always predict the artistic values of the future.
Brillo Box (3¢ OFF) debuts tonight on HBO.