Director Lisanne Skyler’s Brillo Box (3 Cents Off) is a brisk, tightly woven 40-minute documentary befitting of its titular subject material: Andy Warhol’s silk-screened, 13” X 11” cardboard replica of a Yellow Brillo Box design, which was released in 1964 to widespread critical denouncement as faux art. As the story goes, the work which Skyler’s father, Martin Skyler, once purchased for $1k in 1969 and soon traded away, would go on to sell at Christie’s Auction House in 2010 for a record-shattering $3 million. As Brillo box (3 Cents Off) skillfully portrays, there’s more to Martin’s seemingly tragic trade than meets the eye.
Though Skyler doesn’t meticulously scrutinize the artistic merits of Warhol’s work, she efficiently peppers her film with quick, informative interview segments and authentic footage of Warhol’s Manhattan based art studio “The Factory”, as well as his colorfully shrewd art dealer Ivan Karp, to give the audience a primer on pop art history and interpretation.
There’s a cautionary origin tale about the Brillo Box’s sleek, sexy design — it is one, as Jessica Todd Smith (Manager of American Art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art) notes, Warhol appreciated when deciding just which commercial ads he would appropriate. As it turns out, the Brillo Box’s original design was painted by a relatively obscure abstract expressionist, James Harvey. However, unlike Harvey, Warhol had a savvier idea on how to appropriate the design in just the right way to make him (in)famous at the time.
Brillo Box (3 Cents Off) is not overridden with lengthy interviews, but Skyler does know how to pick her spots. A very fine summation on how Warhol posthumously became a contemporary art visionary is delivered by Daniel Wolf, who produced the four-hour opus, Andy Warhol: A Documentary Film, in 2006. Over a snappy montage of images portraying overwhelming LCD commercial advertisements, Wolf concludes “The world is more Warholian today than it was when he died.”
The gravity of Wolf’s searing message, however, is adversely tempered by a soft rock soundtrack — one of several directorial choices to keep Brillo Box (3 Cents Off) lively and upbeat. But the film’s breezy atmospherics has an inconsistent tone with the gravity of Warhol’s prophetic take on the future intersections between commercialism and the art world. Warhol’s ghost looms over today’s fringe artists who are competing against social media’s incessant advertisement of derivative works and the branded artists who engine them. This is a gloomy interpretation to be sure, but an important one to further explore as it reflects the everyday reality of those struggling original thinkers barely living paycheck to paycheck in an exponentially expanding corporate art world.
Skyler’s lighter and less critical objective in Brillo Box (3 Cents Off) is best appreciated as her personal appropriation of Warhol’s work. As Skyler signals with her pleasant, disarming voiceover: “this is the story of our Brillo Box.” The Skyler family is interesting and accessible, and although they don’t seem particularly victimized by the Warholian circle of social media hell, their story is still interesting and poignant.
Brillo Box (3 Cents Off)’s portrayal of the Skyler family’s ventures into the 1969 Manhattan art market is irresistibly wistful. Black and white photos depict a young Martin as a mop-haired government attorney who could afford to invest in a Warhol piece at a kind price of $1k. Skyler seems to be suggesting here that at the very least, the art market didn’t all but exclude a young professional from participating in it. One may ask if the same conditions exist today for recent post-graduates saddled with often more than $100k in student loan debt.
Nor was the art scene so brand obsessed. There’s a charming honesty to how the Martin family treated their recently purchased Brillo Box: baby pictures of Lisanne climbing the encased box which rested on her family’s living room floor reflect a more authentic treatment of the box’s aesthetic appeal, which conversely adds yet another layer of absurdity to its eventual $3 million sale.
Of course, much of the documentary is devoted to Martin’s financially disastrous (at least in retrospect) decision to trade his signed Yellow Brillo Box in 1971 for an abstract painting by Peter Young. Skyler conveys a shining for Young, who went on to have a successful career advancing through his work wildly creative mediums such as lyrical abstraction and post minimalism. Still, Skyler shows discipline in evenly examining whether her father was naïve for equating aestheticism to valuation.
Here, Skyler presents an even treatment, which is remarkable given her closeness to her subject matter. Accordingly, she dedicates ample time for detailing through interviews, charts, and news clippings about the market forces which posthumously benefited Warhol’s cult-of-personality over a more reclusive, erstwhile painter like Young. This part of the film is largely informational, and while the fast 40-minute format captures the ephemeral nature of the art market, there are segments which could have been expanded toward the goal of a feature length production without sacrificing the Brillo Box (3 Cents Off)’s assured dynamism. For one, a longer treatment of Christie’s Auction House — which from the film’s brief footage had the disorientating feel of a ruthless stock trading floor full of suits and smartphones — would have been a welcome addition to a story so vested in commercialism’s engulfment of the arts.
Nevertheless, Skyler gets the most out of her lean coverage on a weighty topic. Beyond explication and interpretation of Warholian market dynamics, Brillo Box (3 Cents Off) is a homage to Skyler’s parents for continuously adding new art work into their home. In their interviews, Martin and Rita certainly speak about their value judgments; however, at heart, they are individuals who seem fortunate to have been a part of a thriving arts scene and to get their children involved in it.
Brillo Box (3 Cents Off) may have needed an iconic Warhol artwork to receive attention, but the film’s narrative journey would have remained compelling even if it had focused on lesser known artists. It’s the latter attribute which should determine artistic value, even if we know this is all too often not the case.