Duplicated Duplicates

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Brillo Boxes, Andy Warhol, 1969 — Norton Simon Museum © 2005 Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts

The Moderna Museet, Stockholm’s modern art museum, has determined that six Andy Warhol Brillo boxes in its collection are fakes. They were turned out by carpenters three years after Warhol’s death, at the request of the late Pontus Hulten, the Museum’s famous director in the 1960s, who needed them to promote a show in Russia in 1990. The Museum now claims that Hulten later sold some of the boxes with the false claim that they had been made in 1968 and donated several to the Museum. Bad Pontus.

When I read this story I immediately thought of Arthur Danto, the well known philosopher and critic, because it was his encounter with Warhol’s Brillo boxes in a New York gallery in 1964 that led him to the speculations that produced his famous first book, The Transfiguration of the Commonplace. What obsessed Danto was that the Warhol boxes were perfectly indistinguishable from actual Brillo boxes. If that could be art, he said to himself, then art needed to be radically redefined, which is what he set about doing.

The Duchampian paradox of today’s story is that what Hulten appears to have made are Brillo boxes identical to Warhol’s Brillo boxes, which were themselves identical to actual Brillo boxes. All three categories look the same, but only the second one, Warhol’s, qualify as art. But what if Hulten had claimed that his Brillo boxes were not duplicates of Warhol’s boxes but were, like Warhol’s, duplicates of the original Brillo boxes? Would that have made them original Hultens? They would not be all that original of course, since they would be copies of Warhol’s idea. But Warhol’s idea had something to do with the power of copying. So Hulten’s copies could be seen as a further application of Warhol’s idea.

For good measure, the Brillo boxes in the picture above, from the collection of the Norton Simon Museum, are themselves duplicates, but ones that Warhol himself had fabricated — apt word, that — in 1969, which makes them “real” copies.

I could go on, but this is making my head hurt.

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