Running away with the box

11

Dear Artist,

James Harvey, not yet one year old, moved with his family from Toronto to Detroit in 1930. After studying painting at the Art Institute of Chicago in the 1950s and designing window displays in Detroit, James moved to New York to try and break into the art world. He took a job for $55 a week in the studio of industrial and packaging designer Egmont Arens and started showing his abstract expressionist oil paintings around town. For two years, he worked with a team to redesign the Philip Morris cigarette package — an also-ran to the post-war streamlining going on over at Lucky Strike. From 200 versions, the ad execs at Philip Morris chose what James thought was the most mediocre of the bunch. From the “quaint-looking, brown, old-Englishy, shoppe look,” said James, to “red-and-white, geometric, rather banal, modern-looking things that you can’t tell from any other cigarette package, it’s a committee-arrived-at thing.”

james-v-harvey-4

“The Red Sea”
oil painting by
James V Harvey (1928-1965)

Soon after, Arens fired his creative team and James went to work with his colleagues, forming the new creative agency, Stuart and Gunn. There, he designed for Pepsodent and Ipana toothpastes, all the while complaining of a lack of inspiration and creative autonomy. “It is a totally mechanical process,” he said. “I could do it in my sleep.”

 

James-Harvey3

“Siegfried II”
oil painting
by James V Harvey

Meanwhile, across town, another blue-collar-raised son of immigrants had also been designing windows and then began doing illustrations for Glamour magazine. By 1962, he started repurposing the graphics and iconography of commercial package design for his own fine art. Andy Warhol was being panned by the critics for his vapid Campbell’s soup cans and for pumping out almost mass-produced silk screens of Hollywood celebrities. In 1964, James walked into the Stable Gallery in New York to check out Andy’s latest show. One visitor had already written the word “SHIT” in capitals in the guest book. Inside, 400 replicas of supermarket product boxes were stacked as if the gallery were a stockroom. Amongst the Heinz, Del Monte, Mott’s and Kellogg’s packages, the most seductive were the graphically sound, clean-lined, 120 red-and-white boxes for Brillo cleaning pads. “Oh my god,” said James. “I designed those.”

james-v-harvey-2

“Persian Fantasy”
oil painting
by James V Harvey

Sincerely,

Sara

PS: “They always say time changes things, but you actually have to change them yourself.” (Andy Warhol)

Esoterica: James chatted with Andy at the opening and laughed off the steal. Andy didn’t know that James was the designer. James’ dealers at the Graham Gallery issued a press release on behalf of Stuart and Gunn: “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.’ What’s one man’s box, may be another man’s art.” Two years later, James would show his paintings for the last time — what the New York Times described as, “dynamic, restless, and painted with rich skill.” Eight months later at age 36, he died of cancer of the blood and his family took the contents of his studio home to Detroit.

In 2016, Lisanne Skyler wrote and directed a short film for HBO about the Brillo box her parents bought for $1000 in 1969. Purchased from a New York City art dealer who had bought it for its original price of $200, Lisanne’s father convinced the dealer to have Warhol break protocol and sign the box, and then he encased it in plexiglass. The Brillo box sat in Lisanne’s family room as a coffee table for two years before her father sold it as part of his ever-changing contemporary art collection. Forty years later, after completely losing track of it, Lisanne opened a Christie’s catalogue and saw her family’s box, attended the auction and watched the hammer fall at over 3 million dollars. “I thought that the best way to tell a story about art collecting,” said Lisanne, “and the complicated way emotions and economics co-mingle in the buying and selling of art, would be to follow the path of one work across time and changing landscapes, to look at the different decisions that shaped its journey, and explore the complex, deeply personal, even idiosyncratic, way we value art.”

james-v-harvey-1

“Caspian Gates”
oil on canvas
by James V Harvey

In 1964, after the Brillo boxes were banned from entering Canada because they could not be deemed works of art, an interviewer questioned Andy:
Inteviewer: “The Canadian government spokesman said that your art could not be described as original sculpture. Would you agree with that?”
Andy: “Uh, yes.”
Interviewer: “Why would you agree?”
Andy: “Well, because it’s not original.”
Interviewer: “You have just then copied a common item.”
Andy: “Yes.”
Interviewer: “Well why have you bothered to do that? Why not create something new?”
Andy: “Uh, because it’s easier.”

james-v-harvey-3

The Letters: Vol. 1 and 2, narrated by Dave Genn, are now available for download on Amazon, here. Proceeds of sales contribute to the production of The Painter’s Keys.

“They copied all they could follow, but they couldn’t copy my mind, so I left them sweating and stealing a year and a half behind.” (Rudyard Kipling)

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11 Comments

  1. Loved your “Running away with the box.” Love all your letters, Sara, and Dad’s too. I’m so glad you have carried on Robert’s tradition. On my blog yesterday, I featured your Give me the artist at seven, and gave you full credit, as I do anytime I borrow a letter. There is so many parallels artist to writer, your letters fit well. I’ve been getting Dad’s letters since close to the beginning, about the same time I began painting publically. Could that be twenty or thirty years? Of course, I have his first book, a treasure.

  2. Laughed my head off at that….”cos it’s easier”. BRILLIANT! But something that should be the simplest and easiest thing in the world is somehow very difficult for us. To open our eyes to wonder. To look with wonder. To see with wonder, and so find that every ordinary extraordinary thing is wonder full.

  3. Thank you, Sara, for a remarkable backstory. Two related reads of interest…Don Thompson’s “The Supermodel and the Brillo Box” and Richard Polsky’s “I Sold Andy Warhol (too soon)”. On the local level here in the Phoenix area a painting by Ed Mell sold at auction recently at over $100,000 when the pre-auction estimate had been $30,000 to $40,000. At 75 Ed is still a prolific artist, but I wonder what his selling price was for this painting the first time around. Enough to pay the immediate costs of continuing to paint, maybe helping to support a family?

  4. Warhol may be worth millions- but he was always a rip-off artist. And since I don’t do anything “because it’s easier” his work-ethic remains questionable- at best. Sad to hear James V Harvey died at 36. Imagine what his later work might have been like. And in 1978/79- my window design work got published internationally. Fortunately- I’ve created and exposed enough fiber art- that it’s been published internationally- too. Of course- I’m not dead yet…

    • Yes he is a rip off artist, but a made a stack, I suppose it could be said that another rip off who artist took his business model and ran with it is our own plagiaristic uk artist Damian Hurst.

  5. Once again, truth is stranger than fiction. Fascinating story with a $3 million anecdote that nails it. Thanks for this!

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