It’s a head-scratcher why a three-year investigation was necessary to know that 100 of Andy Warhol’s Brillo boxes are copies. It’s not like they’re one of a kind to begin with, are they?
As the story goes, the founding director of the Moderna Museet in Stockholm, the late Pontus Hutten, made the copies and exhibited them as originals at the museum – 40 of which sold for a quarter million dollars – without the artist’s permission. This is not at all unlike the bronze reproductions that his dealer made of Degas wax studies without his say–so.
But unlike the bronzes, a material that Degas was known to dislike, Warhol probably wouldn’t mind the copying of his Brillo boxes. His agenda was made clear in an interview with his biographer Patrick Smith. When asked,”What you do want? You’ve got everything: You have crowds, hordes, young people, beautiful people, charming people, rich people, lovely people. Nobody seems to touch you. What do you want?” Warhol answered, “I want more fame.”
And he acted out that wanting. He used to sit in the lobby of the Plaza Hotel in Manhattan dolled up in wild white wigs, sunglasses and a James Dean leather jacket, hoping to be noticed.
Also helping him get noticed were the celebrity portraits he painted, like Marilyn Monroe’s after she died and Jackie Kennedy Onassis’ after she was widowed. Following the deaths of Monroe and President Kennedy, Warhol began his “Disaster Series,” such as the “Electric Chair.” After he was shot by one of his groupies, his work grew still darker with images of skull, gun and knife.
You might think that such imagery reflects on the violence in America society, but not if you take seriously the words of his assistant, Gerard Malanga. Each painting in the “Disaster Series” took about four minutes, he said. “We worked as mechanically as we could, but we made mistakes. The critics interpreted them as intentional.”
Worshipful words from critic Carter Ratcliff come to mind: “Warhol is secretly the vehicle of artistic intentions so complex that he would probably cease to function if he didn’t dilute them with nightly doses of the inane.”
Warhol’s own words deny such intentions: “If you want to know all about Andy Warhol,” he famously said, “just look at the surface of my paintings . . . There’s nothing below it . . . I want to be a machine.”
He wasn’t kidding. He attacked individuality, originality and everything else that art was in the ’60s, and the real thing never quite recovered. It was no accident that Warhol used silkscreen prints for his celebrity portraits, including those of Elvis, Marilyn, Jackie and Martha Graham.
With such a reprinting technique, he could reproduce an image over and over for the most stale, impersonal look. Warhol repeated his images in mechanical reproduction ad nauseum with photographic enlargements that he silkscreened onto canvas. He made wallpaper-pattern reprints of these, glorifying their sameness and their mass-production.
This muse-less master of the mundane repeated the look of Brillo boxes, Campbell soup cans and Coca-Cola bottles just as he had the face of Jackie Kennedy in her bloodied pillbox hat after her husband’s assassination. He made wallpaper out of her image, too. And in the repetition, he numbed our perception. He gave us aesthetic emptiness.
He once said that anything is boring if you look at it long enough. He loved being bored and wanted to be a machine – blank and cold. In the catalogue for his first retrospective show in ’68, held at Stockholm’s Moderna Museet, he said, “I like boring things . . . If you want to know all about Andy Warhol, just look at the surface of my paintings and there I am. There’s nothing behind it.”
Which makes the copies of Warhol’s Brillo boxes just more of nothing.
Note: My new book “Sculpture Off The Pedestal” – a behind-the-scenes look at 25 sculptors – is available at Amazon.com, where you can also post a review.