On April 21, 1964, James Harvey, with his friend Joan Washburn, walked into New York’s Stable Gallery to see an opening for a rising artist named Andy Warhol. The show—which attracted a line around the block, despite mostly negative reviews—consisted of 400 large replicas of supermarket product boxes for brands such as Heinz, Del Monte, Mott’s, and Kellogg’s, stacked around the gallery as if in a stockroom. The ones that attracted the most attention were the 120 containers for Brillo cleaning pads. “Oh my god,” Harvey said to Washburn when he saw the Brillo boxes. “I designed those.”
At the time, Harvey was known, if at all, as a second-generation abstract expressionist painter who applied his oils so thickly that a 1961 New York Times review described him as “obviously having a love affair with his paint.” (Washburn worked at the Graham Gallery, which had hosted several of Harvey’s exhibitions.) But his day job was as a commercial artist for the industrial and package designers Stuart and Gunn, creating redesigns for companies like Philip Morris and Bristol-Myers. Three years before, Brillo implemented his drawings for a redesign of the company’s packaging.
Like most artists of that time, Harvey made a great distinction between his commercial art and his fine art. Warhol famously recognized these consumer objects as the most elemental creations of our society. By refusing to separate fine art and commerce, Warhol, who had also been a commercial artist during the ’50s, turned Harvey’s Brillo box into Brillo Box. In the book After the End of Art, the philosopher and art critic Arthur Danto asks, “What distinguishes Warhol’s Brillo Box from the Brillo boxes in which Brillo comes?” On that day in April, the difference had never been so small.
For two artists whose aesthetic philosophies and levels of success were diametrically opposed, Warhol and Harvey had much in common. They both came from blue-collar, immigrant families. Warhol was born in Pittsburgh in 1928, Harvey a year later in Toronto before his family moved to Detroit when he was three months old. Warhol earned a degree at the Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon), moved to New York, and started illustrating for Glamour. Harvey studied painting at the Art Institute of Chicago; after a brief move back to Detroit, where he designed window displays for retail giant J. L. Hudson (Warhol designed windows for Bonwit Teller), he moved to New York to break into the art world.
Like other painters unable to support themselves with fine art, Harvey applied for a job as a commercial artist. He secured a position in the studio of Egmont Arens, an industrial and packaging designer who helped usher in the “streamlined” style before World War II. Harvey started at $55 a week and apparently had little enthusiasm for his work. In a 1963 interview with Richard Brown Baker for the Archives of American Art, he discussed his redesign for Philip Morris cigarette packaging, which was precipitated by the success of Raymond Loewy’s famous red-and-white design for Lucky Strike. Harvey and his colleagues had worked for two years on sketches, completed 200 final comps, and did 200 final designs, changing the package’s “quaint-looking, brown, old-Englishy, shoppe look” to “[these] red-and-white, geometric, rather banal, modern-looking things that you can’t tell from any other cigarette package.” The executives gradually pared down the numbers, and the winner, thought Harvey, was the most mediocre of the bunch. “It’s a committee-arrived-at thing,” he said.
Warhol always had a fondness for commercial art, and with his trademark blotted-line technique and eye for color, he became one of the most sought-after commercial illustrators in New York. By 1959, he was making an impressive $100,000 a year.
That same year, Egmont Arens fired his creative team. Two of them, Whitney Stuart and William Gunn, took Harvey with them as a freelance designer when they started their own company, called Stuart and Gunn, where Harvey completed the work for Brillo. One of his talents was drawing lowercase letters, which represented a simple way to update blocky, all-caps design left over from prewar days. (His lowercase i for Ipana—especially the i’s oval dot—prefigured the i that appeared on the Brillo box.) This sort of creativity was not a point of pride for him. “It is a totally mechanical process,” he told Baker. “I could do it in my sleep.” He bemoaned his lack of control: The agency was in charge. “This doesn’t look like Pepsodent. Make it look more like Pepsodent,” the agency would tell him. “Or we’ll do a soap-box thing,” Harvey continued, “and they’ll say, ‘But couldn’t you give us something that looks more like Tide? Make it look like Tide, but make it different—but make it look like Tide.’”
Of course, it was that very banal consumer environment that so inspired Warhol. In 1962, the artist exhibited his Campbell’s soup series in Los Angeles, to mostly dismissive critical response. But when his silk-screened portraits of Elvis, Marilyn, and Liz debuted, he began to attract more notice. Other artists were helping to create a climate of acceptance for such works. Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg had incorporated graphic elements and ephemera into their paintings, and Lichtenstein was turning comics into flat, linear canvases.
Harvey regarded pop art with distaste. He thought its practitioners were simply recreating the technical underpinnings of an image, instead of plumbing the depths of the soul as abstract expressionists did. “I can’t possibly relate to Andy Warhol as a painter,” he told Baker a year before Warhol would take his own Brillo redesign and turn it on its head. He called pop art “an anti-art movement.”
By 1964, Warhol was only a minor sensation, but the Stable Gallery exhibition—which became known as “the soap-box show”—launched his persona, and made him an artist people loved to revile. One patron wrote “SHIT” in big capitals in the guest book, and critics panned the work. Washburn says that when Harvey saw his design in the gallery, he laughed it off. He and Warhol, who knew each other slightly (though Warhol wasn’t aware of Harvey’s Brillo connection), even chatted during the opening.
The Graham Gallery was less amused. It issued a
feeble press release on behalf of Stuart and Gunn (and Harvey) that stated: “It is galling enough for Jim Harvey, an abstract expressionist, to see that a pop artist is running away with the ball, but when the ball happens to be a box designed by Jim Harvey, and Andy Warhol gets the credit for it, well, this makes Jim scream: ‘Andy is running away with my box.’” But the final line practically admitted defeat: “What’s one man’s box, may be another man’s art.”
History has been as kind to Warhol, the aesthetic maestro, as it has been harsh to Harvey, the romantic on the cusp of the age of irony. James Harvey’s last show, at Graham in November 1964, presented paintings that were “dynamic, restless, and painted with rich skill,” according to the Times. But by July 15, 1965, Harvey was dead in New York’s Lenox Hill Hospital. He had succumbed to what was described in his obituary as a “long illness” (according to Washburn, this was a cancer of the blood). His family came and picked up his photographs, unsold canvases, and remaining possessions, and took everything back to Detroit, where it remains.
As for the brand on which he and Warhol had put a spotlight, Brillo enjoyed a spike in popularity after the show but faded away in the ’70s with the advent of dishwashers and Teflon. The company, sold in 1984 to Church and Dwight (makers of Arm & Hammer products and Trojan condoms), doesn’t even own any of the old boxes. According to Brillo’s brand manager, Wendy Bishop, Brillo packaging has been redesigned “at least a dozen times” since Harvey’s 1961 creation.
One of the few surviving examples of Harvey’s box is owned by the art historian Irving Sandler, who keeps it in his Manhattan apartment encased in Plexiglas. When Warhol was autographing copies of his Brillo Box at the Stable Gallery for $300, Sandler suggested that Harvey sign copies of his Brillo boxes at Graham—and sell them for 10 cents. Harvey signed only one and sent it to Sandler as a gift, a half-hearted gesture to reclaim something he never much cared for in the first place.
Additional reporting provided by Sharon Clott.