Brillo Box, 1964
Silkscreen ink and house paint on plywood
17 x 17 x 14 inches

Living in Warhol's World:  "Andy Warhol"

by Arthur C. Danto

By Brian Appel


“Transformative” is a word used too often in the art world, but Arthur C. Danto—the storied Johnsonian professor of philosophy emeritus at Columbia University—gets right to the essence of the meaning of art in his new book “Andy Warhol”. This slim but dense 150-page volume is nothing less than a treatise on Danto’s claim that the story of art ended in 1964 with the “Brillo Box”. Art had reached its final chapter and had become “post-historical”. He meant what Hegel meant when he wrote that history had come to an end: art had realized its possibilities. Technically, there was nothing more to be achieved. Art had now become philosophy.

Danto begins by taking the reader along to Warhol’s game-changing second exhibition at New York’s famed Stable Gallery in the spring of 1964 where the author experienced an epiphany:

“The space was filled, floor to ceiling, with grocery boxes. The front room, on Seventy-fourth Street, was given over to the now familiar “Brillo Box” sculptures, red and blue on white, and there were about a hundred of them. The Kellogg’s Corn Flakes boxes were in the rear gallery. The gallery was on the ground floor of an elegant upscale white-stone town house that has since been incorporated into the Whitney Museum as its business entrance. The entrance area has a black-and-white marble tile floor, with a delicate staircase to the right, and a polished brass balustrade. One entered the gallery itself through a large mahogany door, which, during the few weeks that the show was up, had the utilitarian look of a stockroom. The contrast between the delicate entrance of the building and the space of the Stable gallery was like the contrast between waking life and dream—it was as if one were suddenly transported to a crass utilitarian space, radically discontinuous with the upper-class atmosphere of Madison Avenue and the Upper East Side of Manhattan.”

Like Picasso, who put a crooked nose on “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” or Duchamp dubbing a urinal art and naming it, “Fountain”, Danto credits Warhol’s Brillo Box with presenting the author, and by extension us the viewer, with the conundrum of “how to define art”. What makes Warhol’s Brillo Boxes—which for all intensive purposes “look like” the real thing–art and the other not?

In Danto’s eyes, the backbone of art history is the development story of representation, from representational art of the Renaissance through Impressionism, Cubism and Abstraction. To Danto, art must be seen as a series of manipulations of the relationship between art and reality. According to Danto, western visual art, in the period from the Renaissance to the very recent past, has had a linear history. Whether one wishes to call it progress or not, at each stage in that history, one had to move forward if one wished to be a serious artist.

But to understand the author’s theory you have to understand Clement Greenberg’s theory first—especially his 1960 essay “Modernist Painting”—making a case for the historical necessity of abstraction.

Greenberg argued that avant-garde artists were compelled to make non-representational art because of the mass production of commercially manufactured culture—kitsch, popular fiction, Hollywood movies, etc., were all realistic, as was its subject. Avant-garde artists responded by making their subject art itself. The question then would be: who was the first modernist painter—who deflected the art of painting from its representational agenda to a new agenda in which the means of representation became the object of representation? Who was the first to shift from mimetic to non-mimetic? Could the first ‘modernist’ artist be Manet in the later third of the 19th century?

This is a key question because in Greenberg’s eyes the shifting of art’s various stages is reflected in the styles and ideologies of the art that is produced during that era. And in the broader perspective, at the root of these developments, these various changes are shaped by the underpinnings of the aims and goals of that society.

Avant-garde art, Greenberg believed, was art that explored its own formal possibilities. It was art about art. Greenberg by 1960 had become an advocate of the most rarefied kind of abstraction, painting that dispensed with representational illusion as much as possible. He was promoting resolutely two-dimensional, color defined painting. He regarded Pop as silly diversion. Not only was Pop representational; it represented comic books, advertisements, product designs—the world of kitsch. Pop art did not seem to be art about art. Danto’s point was that it was. Danto admired Greenberg, particularly his commitment to a historical explanation for the evolution of artistic styles. In becoming the champion of Pop, Danto was not out to debunk Greenberg. On the contrary, he wanted to show how the “Brillo Box” addressed the very problem that Greenberg had set for modern art—the problem of art’s relation to everyday reality.

Unlike Picasso and Duchamp—who were both European intellectuals from privileged backgrounds—Warhol came from a working-class immigrant family and a blue-collar sensibility and “knew, and was moved by, the same things his audience knew and was moved by”. Warhol’s art is, “…in a way, a celebration as art of what every American knows.” For the first time in history, an artist had created an aesthetic aimed at mass audiences. For the first time in art, Warhol—who had miraculously transformed himself from a commercial illustrator and window dresser to a member of the New York avant-garde—was attracting fans, adulation, and the attention (not to mention the bank balances) that were once the terrain of rock stars.

Warhol’s “Before and After”—a breakthrough painting executed in 1961 based on an advertisement that appears in the back pages of cheap magazines and newspapers—showed two profiles of the same woman, before and after an operation on her nose. The left hand side of the canvas shows her with a huge, “witchlike nose”, the one on the right with a cute turned-up nose, “like a cheerleader’s or a starlet’s”. As such, Danto postulates, “it was the embodiment of the kind of dream that haunts people concerned with changing their looks in order to be, they think, more attractive.”

Warhol had interpenetrated two separate texts in one painting: for the female observer, the painting suggests that through the use of cosmetic products (in this case cosmetic surgery) a new “improved” self-image can be had while for the male the “after” image becomes a source of voyeuristic pleasure in the objectification of the female ‘star’. It also functions as a symbol of the biographical transition of the artist in which a successful commercial artist (“Before”) becomes a serious member of “the art world” (“After”). For Danto, the transformation goes even further including the shift from Andy at his art exhibit to (quoting David Bourdon) Andy as if he “were the exhibit”.

Putting an everyday object in an art gallery, and thereby transforming it into “art” had already been done, almost 50 years before by Marcel Duchamp. The snow shovel, urinal, and bottle rack—the pieces he called “readymades”—had raised the philosophical issues that Danto ascribed to Warhol’s 1964 Stable show. This was the first skirmish in the anti-aestheticism that became such an important strand in modern art. But Danto makes the point that Warhol was not simply copying Duchamp (as people accused him of doing), he was responding to Duchamp’s readymades by creating objects that only look like readymades.

Warhol’s boxes were life-like illusions and fundamentally different from Duchamp’s ready-mades for two important reasons. Firstly these trompe-l’oeil boxes were handmade wood constructions with silkscreen ink and house paint as opposed to the ‘originals’ whose labels were made with offset lithography on cardboard, and secondly, “…they were empty inside, filled with nothing but air, as hollow as the rhetoric so boldly emblazoned upon them.”

Danto argues that Warhol’s Brillo Boxes of 1964 were literally three dimensional photographs of the products—an extension of what Andy had done with the Soup Cans— stacked in columns just as if they were for sale. Perceived and exhibited, the “Brillo Box” became, in Danto’s eyes, the first “post-historical work” that demands something other than eyes. Danto’s question was no longer “What is art?” but rather “Given two indiscernible objects, one a work of art and the other not, wherein are they different?” The reference is, of course, to his grocery boxes as against their counterparts in the real world. Warhol’s boxes are silkscreen photographs of the latter, in three dimensions, and for all intensive purposes perfect copies of the originals. Danto declares we have reached “the end of art”, at the time when the line between art objects and ordinary objects are invisible.

Part of this phenomenon was due to the fact that Warhol’s show at the Stable was one of the first to transform the perception of space by taking into account the viewer’s entire sensory experience. Rather than float framed points of focus on a “neutral” wall or display isolated objects on pedestals, Andy created an installation which utterly transformed the rarefied ambience of the traditional art gallery into a stockroom of any supermarket in America.

Andy’s wooden boxes painted to look like cardboard grocery cartons in an environment that looked like a “utilitarian stock room” was, in Danto’s eyes, just “one more turn of the screw” in the development of art history. The importance of this exhibition revolved around this new notion that the definition of art is that its basis is philosophical or conceptual rather than a question of the aesthetics of a work.

Duchamp loved the Campbell’s soup cans and the Brillo Boxes because “they freed art from the tyranny of the retinal image”. You don’t need to stare at the images to get them. It’s the concept that provides the art content. The content for Danto is “philosophy”.

What makes commercial art different from fine art when the products of either can look as much alike as anyone cares to make it? James Harvey, the designer of the ‘original’ Brillo Box who created the wavy shapes of white and red, together with the blue letters that could arguably make reference to the American flag—emblems of purity and patriotism—have art historical references to Hard-Edged abstraction. The cartons shriek “New! Giant! Fast!”; the words chosen by Harvey belong to the “hyper-vocabulary of the used car lot”, and his work is a remarkable piece of visual rhetoric. Some might speculate that Harvey’s color scheme and graphics were influenced by the backdrop of the escalating Vietnam War and the rising tide of anti-war demonstrations and a growing civil rights movement throughout the United States.

Warhol gets no credit for the brilliance of “Brillo Box’s” design but what Andy gets credit for is his removal of what was an entirely vernacular object of everyday life in America and turning it into a piece of sculpture.

Danto quotes Edmund White who said that:

“Andy took every conceivable definition of the work ‘art’ and challenged it… Art reveals the trace of the artist’s hand: Andy resorted to silkscreening. A work of art is a unique object: Andy came up with multiples. A painter paints: Andy made movies. Art is divorced from the commercial and the utilitarian: Andy specialized in Campbell’s soup cans and dollar bills. Painting can be defined in contrast to photography: Andy recycled snapshots. A work of art is what an artist signs, proof of his creative choice, his intentions: Andy signed any object whatever. Art is an expression of the artist’s personality, congruent to his discourse: Andy sent instead a look alike on the lecture tour.”

Warhol’s box raises deep philosophical questions on which Harvey’s text is mute. Warhol’s work destabilized the distinct domains of high culture and commercial art.

Rauschenberg and Johns had opened the path in the late 1950s that had immediate relevance for Warhol. The critique of the obsessive, autobiographical practices of Ab-Ex in favor of a broad embrace of the detritus of American visual culture—flags, targets, newspaper photographs and found objects—gave Warhol the impetus to embrace commercial culture as the central source of imagery for his work. The photographic sources allowed Warhol to by-pass illusionist dilemmas, just as Jasper Johns did by painting already-flat subjects such as “Flag” and “Target”.

Issues having to do with authorship, subjectivity, and uniqueness are built into the very nature of the photographic silkscreen process and the “Brillo Box” is an exceptionally early example. Seriality, repetition, appropriation, inter-textuality and simulation are all the primary devises employed in this work and anticipates what was to come fifteen years later with the “Pictures artists” and the postmodernist sensibility.

In Danto’s last chapter entitled “Religion and Common Experiences,” the author takes up the Hegelian notion that art, philosophy, and religion are forms through which “human beings represent what it means to be human”. There is in that respect, an analogy between artworks and religious objects.

What is undeniable is that Andy Warhol was a Catholic, his mother was very religious and the two of them regularly attended church and prayed together.

Based on Leonardo’s “The Last Supper”, Warhol did a series of his own versions of the “Last Supper” which were much like his serial paintings of soup cans or dollar bills. Many have interpreted this as evidence of Andy Warhol's religiousness.  He doubled Jesus, the way he doubled Marilyn, or Elvis. Repetition was a sign of significance. He filled it with logos from contemporary products, like Dove soap, to represent the Holy Spirit, or the Wise owl from the familiar potato chip package, emblematizing wisdom. Or he used the General Electric logo to emblematize light. All of these came from the commercial world in which he and the rest of us are at home, though it is fair to say that none of them held religious significance as such. Or did they?

By making it his, he shows us that it is ours, part of life, rather than something one has to travel to Italy to see. In this respect, it is like the dish on the table of Andy’s “Last Supper” painting, sometimes held to be the Grail, commonplace rather than rare, “a dish like any other rather than something crusted with jewels and made of precious metals”.

In a photograph of Warhol’s studio taken by Evelyn Hofer just after Warhol’s death, there is a large painting, of a double portrait of Jesus presiding at the Last Supper. His eyes cast down, while two disciples, Thomas and James, gesture with great animation to his left. In that studio photograph, many other paintings are shown, leaning against the side walls. The only other picture that faces us, however, is on the left side of the painting Danto has been discussing. It shows a bowl of chicken noodle soup blazoned on the familiar red and white Campbell’s soup label, with the familiar logo, the neatly written “Campbell’s”. The image on the label is of a mass-produced china dish, “whose utterly commonplace decorated rim rings the Queen of soups like a halo”.

Danto argues that the two images—“Campbell’s Soup Can” and “Last Supper”—mark the beginning and the end of Warhol’s career and the plate on the label echoes the plate on the table at which Jesus appears to be gazing with his downcast eyes. Could this be seen as possessing some profound meaning? What meaning could be more secret than that the wine and bread are Christ’s flesh and blood, and that in partaking of these Jesus becomes part of the blood and flesh of the partakers?

Danto doesn’t believe Warhol became a religious artist in 1986 with the “Last Supper” works. He believes Andy became a religious artist in the moment between 1959 and 1961 when he underwent the artistic change deep enough to bear comparison with a religious conversion.

Returning again to the signification of the “Before and After” painting: the “Before” could reference the effete artist of the erotic ads for upscale women’s footwear and the “After” to Warhol’s transformation “to the coarse, grainy ads one sees in the back pages of blue collar publications” with their familiar, anonymous and vernacular ads which offer radical relief from whatever ails one—paintings at the beginning of Andy’s fine art career.

Warhol demonstrated with the “Brillo Box” the possibility that two things may appear outwardly the same and yet be not only different but momentously different. Danto suggests its significance for the philosophy of art was that we can be in the presence of art without realizing it, wrongly expecting that its being art must make some immense visual difference.

Jesus himself was like that ordinary bowl on the table of the “Last Supper”—ordinary but disguised because it was really the Holy Grail—
“… it really looks like something Jesus could have used at the table given that he affected the life of the simple persons he lived among.”

Danto makes the connection from the ordinary bowl on the table in the “Last Supper” painting to the mass-produced china dish in his “Campbell’s Soup” painting leaning close by— images that mark the beginning and end of his career as a “fine artist”.

The author suggests something similar can be said as being true with any number of ordinary things that are disguised. Is the “Brillo Box” one of those?

To this day, critics, art historians and journalists still try to decipher whether Warhol’s “Brillo Boxes” are a commentary on “the shallowness, repetitiveness and commercialism of consumer culture and the banality of postwar American life”, or a celebration of the supermarket which made available to practically all an inexpensive product that would ‘transform’ dirty kitchens and bathrooms to a pristine state bordering on a religious purity.

This was a subject on which Warhol was exceedingly coy: he usually said that he painted these things because they were easy to paint. And since the definition of art had to deal with the readymades and the “Brillo Boxes”, in which aesthetic qualities were marginal at best, there was a question whether aesthetics had anything really to do with art at all. “The aesthetic qualities in the “Brillo Boxes” were the aesthetic qualities that belonged to cheap advertisements through their cheapness”. Could its plainness also be seen as analogous to the possibility that, like the plain bowl that was present at the “Last Supper”, the “Brillo Box” could represent God incarnate?

It’s worth noting that both artist and critic were born in the 1920s, grew up in America’s heartland—Warhol in Pittsburgh, Danto in Detroit—to be shaped by the Depression before hitting New York in the 1940s. Seeing Warhol’s “Brillo Boxes”, the professor of philosophy at Columbia has said was a “transformative” experience that made him into a philosopher of art: “Much of modern aesthetics is more or less a response to Warhol’s challenges, so in an important sense he really was doing philosophy by doing the art that made him famous.”

As Rainer Crone points out in “What Andy Warhol Really Did” in “The New York Review of Books”, an evaluation does not have to make any references to “moments of absolute spirit”:

“Indeed, Warhol’s technique of mechanical reproduction is one of the most important advancements in artistic techniques of the entire twentieth century, comparable to the invention of the mimetic painting style with its central perspective by artists of the Renaissance in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. And this achievement gives him—until this day—an exceptional position in modern art, marked by the uninterrupted inflation of prices for his paintings in the commercial market. In consequence, it is, of course, crucial to acknowledge Warhol’s unique contribution to the development of contemporary art and filmmaking—the rejection of authorship as an essential feature of authenticity and originality.”

But the “Brillo Box”, with its promise that for pennies our pots will shine and that love and happiness will finally come our way might be his ultimate masterpiece. Danto certainly thinks so.


Brian Appel 2009 Webdesign by Lovegrove & Repucci