Skip to content

Lesson Brillo: Is It Art?

This artwork is a recreation of a cardboard Brillo soap pads box using silkscreen ink and house paint on plywood. The box is white with navy blue and red lettering. The blue caption on the front side top of the box reads

Andy Warhol, Brillo Soap Pads Box , 1964
The Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh; Founding Collection, Contribution The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc.
© The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc.
1998.1.709

Develop tools to respond critically to challenging works of art and appreciate multiple viewpoints.

This lesson serves as an icebreaker and introduction to critical response. Students think about an often-controversial work of art, Andy Warhol’s Brillo Box, in order to judge for themselves what constitutes good art. Students use higher-level thinking skills to differentiate between tastes and biases and to listen to diverse perspectives, even if the perspectives differ from their own.

Objectives

  • Students create brainstorming webs.
  • Students list personal tastes and biases.
  • Students compare and contrast personal tastes and biases.
  • Students classify data.
  • Students examine cause and effect.
  • Students form aesthetic responses to artworks.
Four white boxes with the red and blue Brillo soap pads logo on them sit on a silver floor. On top of them is a smaller, yellow box with the same design and a sticker boasting that it is 3 cents off.

Andy Warhol, Brillo Soap Pads Box, 1964
The Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh; Founding Collection, Contribution The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc.
© The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc.
1998.1.706-1998.1.711

About the Art

In the mid-1960s, Warhol carried his consumer-product imagery into the realm of sculpture. Calling to mind a factory assembly line, Warhol employed carpenters to construct numerous plywood boxes identical in size and shape to supermarket cartons. With assistance from Gerard Malanga and Billy Linich, he painted and silkscreened the boxes with different consumer product logos: Kellogg’s corn flakes, Brillo soap pads, Mott’s apple juice, Del Monte peaches, and Heinz ketchup. The finished sculptures were virtually indistinguishable from their cardboard supermarket counterparts. Warhol first exhibited these at the Stable Gallery in 1964, cramming the space with stacked boxes that recalled a cramped grocery warehouse. He invited collectors to buy them by the stack, and, though they did not sell well, the boxes caused controversy. In reference to his boxes, Warhol later said that he “wanted something ordinary,” and it was this mundane, commercial subject matter that infuriated the critics. The perfectly blank “machine-made” look of Warhol’s boxes contrasted sharply with the gestural brushstrokes of abstract expressionist paintings.

Points of View

[The boxes] were very difficult to sell. He thought that everyone was going to buy them on sight, he really and truly did. We all had visions of people walking down Madison Avenue with these boxes under their arms, but we never saw them.

Stable Gallery art dealer Eleanor Ward in David Bourdon, Warhol, 1995

A few days after the move to our [Gerard Malanga and Andy Warhol] workspace, January 28th, a truckload of wood boxes arrived, individually wrapped and taped in clear plastic sheeting. And so would begin the arduous task of taping the floor with rolls of brown paper and setting out each box in a grid-like pattern of eight rows lengthwise… Billy Name and I would take turns painting with Liquitex all six sides of each boxwhich numbered nearly 80the Campbell’s tomato juice for starters, by turning each box around on its side. We waited until the paint dried. Andy and I repeated this process silkscreening all five sides again down the line. The sixth side the bottom sideremained blank… Completing the work took nearly six weeks, from early February well into mid-April.

Warhol’s studio assistant Gerard Malanga,
Archiving Warhol: Writings and Photographs, 2002

Discussion Questions

  1. Would you buy this artwork? Why or why not?
  2. What does the artwork remind you of?
  3. Is the association pleasant or important, or is it unpleasant or banal?

Vocabulary

Procedure

  1. Before class, prepare reproductions of Warhol’s Brillo Box to hand out to students, or enlarge one to hang in the front of the class.
  2. Review with students the following vocabulary terms: bias, critic, opinion, and taste.
  3. Discuss the following questions:
    • What do critics do in popular culture?
    • What is the difference between an informed and an uninformed opinion?
    • How are taste and bias different?
    • How do we judge something to be good or bad?
  4. Pass out handouts and pencils. Have students create a word web, writing out all of the things they know or think about the Brillo Box, their likes/dislikes, and their assumptions.
  5. Help students explain their answers more fully when they are unclear. (See the bubbles on the images below for questions that teachers might ask students.)
  6. After the discussion, instruct students to identify which phrases on their webs are tastes and which are biases. Separate these into a taste list and a bias list.

Extension

This exercise can be repeated with a piece of music. Students create webs and then musical taste and bias lists.

Wrap-up

As a class, discuss when we are critics in our everyday lives and how we make critical judgments about things, such as music, fashion, and movies. In their journals, students should discuss the following:

  1. The similarities between personal tastes and biases.
  2. How tastes and biases, as well as informed and uninformed opinions, might affect a critic’s response.
  3. How they distinguish between good and bad art.

Assessment

The following assessments can be used for this lesson using the downloadable assessment rubric.

  • Aesthetics 1
  • Aesthetics 3
  • Communication 3
  • Critical thinking 1
  • Critical thinking 2
  • Critical thinking 4
  • Historical context 4