Film Review: Brillo Box (3¢ Off) Follows a Warhol Classic in the Modern Art Market

Photo courtesy of HBO

Lisanne Skyler weaves memoir with pop art in the quirky, whimsical and affectionate documentary short, Brillo Box (3¢ Off).

Skyler’s middle-class parents, Martin and Rita, collected pop art in New York and dragged Lisanne and her siblings to downtown galleries on Saturdays. They acquired works by notables such as Chuck Close, Jasper Johns, Roy Lichtenstein, and Frank Stella. They kept them for awhile, and then sold the works when they wanted new pieces. Their apartment walls constantly changing, chronicled in the background of family snapshots.

Interviewed in the film, Martin says he was drawn to “the new and the affordable,” and that his naiveté helped, because then you only buy what you like.

In 1969, they bought an Andy Warhol sculpture for $1,000, one of 17 yellow cardboard boxes with the Brillo scrubbing pad logo. This was part of Warhol’s series of work that prominently featured products such as Kellogg’s, Heinz, and Del Monte. This was a commentary of consumption and consumerism. He wanted people to “buy art like bananas.”

Experts call the works appropriation, borrowing from culture or other artists, then change it in some way. Warhol’s silkscreened cardboard boxes were so similar to the original products that he received cease-and-desist letters, and the boxes were stopped at Canadian customs to be taxed as imports rather than art.

Rita loved the Brillo box, and protected it with Lucite in their living room, even though “the idea was more unique than the appearance.” Martin sold it within a few years, although mom thought it would be “great if you could hold onto everything, which was not an option years ago.” Forty years later, Lisanne, who narrates the 40-minute story, wondered what happened to the box and began the hunt.

After changing prominent owners several times, the box ended up at Christie’s (where film preview screenings were hosted in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Dallas and Chicago), where this “character in the family history” fetched an unprecedented price in 2010.

Christie’s recently hosted a screening of the documentary at their Chicago location, and I was able to catch it. During the post-show discussion, Skyler, who is a University of Arizona professor in addition to writing and directing, said this project taught her about value and decision-making. It’s clear that her parents’ “amazing and instinctive eye” imbued their daughter with her cinematic proclivities.

She said that being exposed to creativity as a child, “being together in the art,” gave her dreaming and reflective space.

“Shared art and ideas move the culture forward,” she observed, “in a tangible, ephemeral experience.”

Brillo Box (3¢ Off) will premier on HBO on Monday, August 7, and will be available on video on demand. 

Karin McKie
Karin McKie

Karin McKie is a Chicago freelance writer, cultural factotum and activism concierge. She jams econo.