Aspen Shortsfest: ‘Brillo Box’ tracks the wild ride of an Andy Warhol piece
If You Go …
What: ‘Brillo Box (3 ¢ off)’ at Shortsfest
Where: Wheeler Opera House, Aspen; Crystal Theatre, Carbondale
When: Saturday, April 9, 5:30 p.m. program, Aspen; Saturday, April 9, 7:30 p.m. program, Carbondale
How much: $15
Tickets: Wheeler Opera House box office; www.aspenshowtix.com
More info: The four-film, 88-minute Aspen program wil be followed by a filmmaker Q-and-A including ‘Brillo Box’ director Lisanne Skyler.
Lisanne Skyler’s mom and dad bought one of Andy Warhol’s iconic Brillo box replicas in 1969 for $1,000. Four decades later, long after they’d given it up, the same sculpture sold at Christie’s Auction House for more than $3 million after a fierce bidding war.
Skyler’s 40-minute documentary, “Brillo Box (3 ¢ off),” tracks the life of the iconic box from her family living room to the auction block, in a colorful, irreverent and personal narrative.
Among its first images is an old family photo of Skyler, as a baby, smiling atop the Warhol piece. She had marveled at the picture for years, she said, and wondered what became of the odd art object.
“It was always a surreal thing to see that photo in the album,” Skyler said in a recent phone interview.
Her parents, married in 1964, were New York gallery hounds in the heyday of abstract expressionism and pop art — spending weekends in SoHo and buying what was new and affordable. Warhol was just one of a who’s who of artists whose work they bought, then sold or traded for more art in those days.
Their Brillo box, it turned out, was just one of 17 yellow ones that Warhol made, replicating the actual Brillo scrub pad boxes in a critique of the commercialization of art. In red crayon, he signed the one the Skylers purchased.
“Some thought I was crazy — ‘How could you call that art?’” her father, Martin, recalls in the film. “But that was part of the fun of it, that people would react that way.”
They were proud to have it in their Manhattan living room, covered in Plexiglass, where it served as a coffee table.
“It was the fact that it was out of context and a new form of art,” Skyler’s mother, Rita, says in the film. “I loved it.”
The movie deftly weaves together her parents’ story as young collectors with the life of Warhol, whose popularity rose and fell precipitously before booming posthumously in the past 20 years. Warhol experts, art world luminaries — even the president of Brillo owner Armaly Brands — comment on the phenomenon of Warhol’s boxes in Skyler’s movie. It unearths a few priceless tales about Warhol’s boxes, like the time a shipment of them was stopped at a Canadian border crossing and taxed as commercial goods because customs agents did not believe they were art.
Her father, who then worked as a prosecutor, was constantly changing the family collection — cycling through Warhol, Lichtenstein, Frank Stella and the like. He got less attached to the works than her mother, who wanted to keep the Brillo box and other pieces.
“Everything that came into the house, to me, was worth everything,” Rita says in the film.
In 1971, her father traded the Warhol box for a work by psychedelic painter Peter Young, who appeared in that moment to be surpassing Warhol in significance. Young stopped exhibiting his work shortly thereafter, dropped out of the New York scene, and fell into obscurity.
In the course of making “Brillo Box,” Skyler tracked Young down in Bisbee, Arizona — not far from where she now lives in Tucson.
“He would introduce me to people and say, ‘Her parents traded a Brillo box for one of my paintings!’” she recalled. “It was the most hilarious thing.”
The film takes you on an adventure, tracking the box on its journey from the Skyler home, through the hands of prominent collectors — including Los Angeles Gagosian Gallery founding director Robert Shapazian — into museum shows and eventually on stage before the toney crowd at Christie’s, where bidders went back and forth, upping its price by $100,000 increments.
HBO acquired the film early on in the filmmaking process and will broadcast it after its festival run.
Skyler is coming to Aspen for the world premiere of “Brillo Box” at the Wheeler on Saturday night — it’s her third time in Aspen with a film. Her short fiction film “Capture the Flag” was in the 2010 Shortsfest program, and her 1999 feature “Getting to Know You” screened at Aspen Filmfest.
She also has some personal links to the nonprofit Aspen Film, which is presenting its 25th annual Shortsfest this week. When she was in film school, Skyler worked as an administrative assistant at the San Francisco International Film Festival under Laura Thielen, who went on to become the long-time director of Aspen Film and retired last year. Just as Thielen served as a mentor to the filmmaker, Skyler taught current Aspen Film program coordinator James Jeffries screenwriting at the University of Arizona and recommended him for the Aspen job.
She compares her creative process in tracking her parents’ Brillo box through the years to the orchid-obsessed Nicolas Cage character in “Adaptation.”
“I didn’t imagine it would end up being as personal as it did,” she said. “I always thought my family would be great on camera, and that period when they were collecting art was always really vibrant to me, but also it was this mystery. I never really understood why at some point we had so much art and then at some point it faded away.”
So in 2010, she interviewed her mother about their collecting period and started tracking their Brillo box. That May, as the date of the Christie’s auction approached, her mom called to suggest she check it out — not knowing that the very box they owned was on the block.
“It all resurfaced in this uncanny way,” she said.
She was familiar with Warhol and art history, but researching the box also illuminated a transformative period in art collecting — as prices skyrocketed and big-dollar global investors were drawn to blue chip art.
“Art is such an interesting thing to look at because it’s economics but it’s also deeply emotional and has things that you can’t quantify about it,” she said.
Fittingly, after delving into her parents’ life as art collectors, Skyler is currently in the early stages of a documentary on parenting and resilience.
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