The pedestrian blue, red, and white of the Brillo boxes are shocking. They catch your eye before you even enter the gallery, signaling that something different is going on in that room—very unlike the soft, golden hues of the 19th- and early 20th-century galleries next door. But it’s not until you walk boldly into the room and take in the installation of The Huntington’s new Andy Warhol works, gifts from the estate of Robert Shapazian, that you get your reward.
It’s a thought-provoking display of, from left to right, Louise Nevelson’s wall sculpture Vertical Zag I (1969), on loan from the Norton Simon Museum; Warhol’s Small Crushed Campbell’s Soup Can (Beef Noodle) (1962); Warhol’s Brillo Box (1964); and a stack of nine of Pontus Hultén’s copies of Brillo Box (1990). Next to the stack of boxes, but on the neighboring wall, is Edward Ruscha’s Bird Drinks Creek Dry, Fish Escapes (1965), on loan from Joan and Jack Quinn.
There’s a lot to look at.
The Nevelson and Ruscha works have been in the room since the expansion and redesign of the Virginia Steele Scott Galleries in 2009. But their new context inspires new ways of seeing them. The Nevelson, for example, is a large black-painted sculpture that hangs like a painting. Soup Can is a small painting with a lot of black. The perfect odd couple.
Then there’s the grouping of the Brillo Boxes. Jessica Todd Smith, Virginia Steele Scott Chief Curator of American Art, who oversaw the new installation, arranged the boxes so that the original hovers above and to the left of a pyramid of the later copies, drawing a clear distinction between the two (though even without that arrangement, a closer look would reveal an almost charming hand-made quality to the original, unlike the newer, more pristine, copies).
Adjacent to the boxes, Ruscha’s painting, Bird Drinks Creek Dry, Fish Escapes, depicts a Red-eyed Vireo dominating the canvas’ large, dark field with a small fish floating in the upper right. Smith says it allows us to compare two very different manifestations of pop art. Made around the same time, the Brillos explore the idea of appropriation of imagery, while Bird Drinks Creek Dry calls attention to the technique of using text (in this case, the title) to make the work understandable. Both reference the booming commercialism and growth of advertising in the middle of the 20thcentury.
Lots to think about…..
There are several significant Warhol collections in the Los Angeles area: The Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA), whose collection includes the painting Telephone (1961); LACMA, which has an early Soup Can painting; and the Norton Simon Museum, with a group of 100 Brillo Boxes made in 1969.
Listen to Cécile Whiting, professor of art history at the University of California, Irvine, discuss the ways in which various artists contributed to L.A.’s urban identity in the 1960s, producing artworks inspired by the sprawling new city as well as its natural environment. You can download “Pop L.A.: Art and the City in the 1960s” from the Huntington’s site on iTunes U.
Thea Page is arts writer and special projects manager in the communications office at The Huntington.
Captions: Susan Colletta, Art Collections registrar, and Gregg Bayne, exhibits manager install Brillo Boxes (1964-1990); grouping of Brillo Boxes adjacent to Bird Drinks Creek Dry, Fish Escapes, Virginia Steel Scott Galleries of American Art, The Huntington.