Contemporary Art

Andy Warhol: Thinking Inside The Box

By Eric Shiner

S ay what you will about Andy Warhol’s imaginative thinking, but the man definitely thought inside of the box. Warhol was fascinated in the packaging that surrounded the everyday items that served as the inspiration for his Pop art practice such as Campbell’s soup cans, Coca-Cola bottles and Brillo boxes. Beginning in 1962, the year the artist dedicated himself to the screen-printing technique that would make him infamous, he created a series based on the shipping and handling labels found on boxes, repeating phrases such as Fragile – Handle with Care, Open This End, and This Side Up on a single canvas. Two years later, the artist pushed his fascination with the box further, creating his famous Brillo, Cornflakes, Heinz and Campbell’s boxes.  

Warhol displayed some of these boxes in the iconoclastic The American Supermarket, an exhibition that included works by Claes Oldenburg, Jasper Johns (to whom Warhol gifted one of these boxes), Roy Lichtenstein and others who each created artworks based on items found in the typical American supermarket at the Bianchini Gallery in New York. Since these works were made on plywood and did not open, they subverted the actual use of the mass produced cardboard boxes on which they were based. (On a side note, there were other artists doing interesting things with boxes in the early 1960s like Tony Smith and Paul Thek). Elevating the mass-produced object to high art would remain Warhol’s signature. 


Warhol’s interest in wrapping, packaging and boxes was connected to his love for the ritual of gift giving, a theme he explored and participated in since his early years working as a commercial illustrator in the 1950s. As the young Warhol gained recognition in the advertising world with his illustrations for Harper’s Bazaar and other magazines, Tiffany & Co. took notice. In 1956 the renowned company hired Warhol to create a Christmas card, which they continued to print until 1962. At this time in his career Warhol also sent friends and those people he admired, such as Truman Capote, hand-drawn Christmas cards. This tradition of gift giving continued throughout the rest of the artist’s career. 

ANDY WARHOL, UNTITLED, 1982. ESTIMATE $20,000–30,000. (LOT 451)

This 1982 Christmas gift perfectly encapsulates Warhol’s relationship to gift giving as well as his vision of the box as the perfect Pop subject. Given by the artist to Lorenzo Vasquez, butler to Warhol’s dear friend and well-known designer Halston, this gift is a quintessentially Warholian gesture. Like the original box sculptures from 1964, this piece subverts expectations by at first glance appearing to be simply what it is. When picking up the box, the weight was the first clue that there was something special about this piece. Upon opening the box, the unknowing recipient would be confronted by the big reveal – left either disappointed or elated. The latter was probably the more common reaction since by 1982, Warhol was extremely commercially successful. Warhol knew that his signature was more valuable than simple chocolates. Ironically touting his own superstardom by paying homage to the signatures of his favorite stars and starlets on the cement walkway in front of Grauman’s Chinese Theater on Hollywood Blvd., Warhol both celebrates his love for the recipient as well as his own stardom.


Eric Shiner is Senior Vice President of Contemporary Art at Sotheby’s. Prior to this, Shiner was the director of The Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh from 2010 to 2016, and was the Milton Fine Curator of Art at The Warhol from 2008 to 2010. A leading scholar on Andy Warhol and Asian contemporary art, Shiner lived and worked in Japan for a total of six years and was assistant curator on the inaugural Yokohama Triennale in 2001. Shiner has curated dozens of contemporary art exhibitions in cities around the globe and was the team leader on The Warhol Museum’s major Warhol retrospective that traveled to Singapore, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Beijing and Tokyo between 2012 and 2014. Notable exhibitions include Andy Warhol | Ai Weiwei in 2015/16, Deborah Kass: Before and Happily Ever After in 2012 and Armory Focus: USA at the Armory Show in 2013.



Stay informed with Sotheby’s top stories, videos, events & news.

Receive the best from Sotheby’s delivered to your inbox.

By subscribing you are agreeing to Sotheby’s Privacy Policy. You can unsubscribe from Sotheby’s emails at any time by clicking the “Manage your Subscriptions” link in any of your emails.

More from Sotheby's