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TV Critic’s Corner

Inside Andy Warhol’s ‘Brillo Boxes’

The auction of “Brillo Box (3 cents off)” in a scene from the HBO film of the same name.
The auction of “Brillo Box (3 cents off)” in a scene from the HBO film of the same name.HBO

“If you want to know all about Andy Warhol,” the artist famously advised Gretchen Berg of The East Village Other in 1966, “just look at the surface of my paintings and films and me, and there I am. There’s nothing behind it.”

And in the case of the artist’s iconic “Brillo Boxes,” he means it. The dozens of silkscreened plywood replicas the artist mini-mass-produced in the 1960s have come to embody the Warhol aesthetic and/or brand. Scrubbing out the lines between commercial commodity and high art, the Brillo Boxes silently critiqued any angle you could take on them just through their indifference to your gaze.

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Decades later, stacked in storage in museums or tucked away in the cabinets of high-dollar collectors, the Brillo Boxes have also grown emblematic of overblown economics and blind speculation of the contemporary art world — a fully realized beast grown from the gremlin Warhol was grooming.

Of course, art being art, Warhol wasn’t completely in control of his work’s aesthetic (non-) impact. And viewers being viewers, people seeking connection still found it in Warhol’s work, no matter how empty his boxes ultimately were.

One of those people is Lisanne Skyler, whose documentary “Brillo Box (3 cents off)” premieres Monday night on HBO at 10 p.m. (just a day after Warhol’s birthday). Skyler wrote, directed, and produced the film, which traces the provenance of an original (so to speak) Brillo Box, from the time it was purchased by her parents in 1969 (for $1,000) to its eventual sale some 40 years later at Christie’s for over $3 million.

Along the way, we get to witness the ups and downs (mostly ups) of the global art market, we get to watch as perspectives on Warhol and his work have changed over the years, and (most intriguingly) we get to see how Warhol — self-described as a “deeply superficial person” — created art that truly meant something to people, despite his best efforts.

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