National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
The work I selected was Electric Chair, painted in 1967. I recently (March 2014) saw this particular variant (one of 14 that Warhol painted that year) at the National Gallery of Australia1 in Canberra.
The painting is quite stark, just an electric chair in an empty room, the restraints fallen to the floor. This variant is yellow. When I first saw it I was not overly impressed but after standing there looking at it for thirty seconds or so, its meaning started to filter through – about death that is imposed on someone else. And what if the person was innocent and had been wrongly convicted?2 3 Quite shocking (no pun intended). The room is deserted; it radiates profound silence and emptiness. The painting bears an atmosphere of hopelessness, of death and of fear.
Warhol’s technique for this piece was to screenprint synthetic polymer paint onto canvas.
The appropriated photo is dated January 13, 1953 (Sing Sing’s Death Chamber) and identifies the chair as the one in which suspected Russian spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were electrocuted.4
Is the work part of a series? Can it be related to other works by Warhol?
Yes, the work is part of Warhol’s Electric Chair series and is a subset of his Death and Disaster series, a loose group of works that occupied the artist from 1962 to 1965.
The image of the electric chair was first used by Warhol in 1964 in a series known as Little Electric Chair. These pieces were of the whole execution room, including three doors and a “Silence” sign. He cropped the image down to just the chair for the 1967 paintings then used the image again in 1971 in a portfolio of ten screenprints, these being known as Big Electric Chair, and finally once more in 1985.
Warhol & Death
Death preoccupied Warhol greatly during the early years of his career. As well as the pictures of electric chairs, he made a number of paintings using extremely graphic police or press agency photographs of car crashes, with the twisted bodies of the dead or dying victims spilling out of the wreckage; he made pictures based on photographs of the crumpled corpses of suicides, including the body of a young woman who jumped from the 86th floor of the Empire State Building, piercing the roof of a car parked below; he also made pictures of atom bomb explosions.
Warhol noted that it was Henry Geldzahler, then curator of Twentieth Century Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, who gave him “the idea to start the Death and Disaster series. We were both having lunch one day in the summer [of 1962] … and he laid the Daily News out on the table. The headline was ‘129 Die in Jet’, and that’s what started me on the death series – the Car Crashes, the Disasters, the Electric Chairs…” 5
One of Warhol’s Big Electric Chair paintings which shows the execution chamber against panels of blue, green and pink, fetched $20.4 million at the Sotheby’s auction in New York on May 14th, 2014.6
The Chinese restaurateur Zhang Lan bought Little Electric Chair for $10.5m in a standalone sale at Christie’s in New York two days earlier.7
How does the work relate to works by other artists?
Death as a motif has long been used by artists.
Some “death” paintings by other artists that I like include:
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Post-Warhol, death as a theme has been much more striking and confronting. The Morgue (series of photos) by Andres Serrano 1992 is quite disturbing. In 2000, Berlinde De Bruyckere’s installation In Flanders Fields, for example, consisted of five reconstructed horses’ bodies, each contorted in apparent death throes. In my opinion, Thomas Hirschhorn is very much the Andy Warhol of today. One of his techniques is appropriation where he makes collages, contrasting glamour photographs taken from magazines with Iraqi war atrocities for example.
Critics & Theorists?
Have any critics or theorists discussed this work? What do they have to say and do you agree with them?
Warhol’s Electric Chair has been much discussed by critics, including a 2006 article in the California Law Review.8 The article quotes Warhol as saying Electric Chair had no meaning and that he wasn’t being political but then argues that this was not the case, quoting friends of Warhol who claimed otherwise.9 10
However, for me, the most important theme that comes through in reading the article is the way people believe in photographs because they are the “truth”. Warhol took this away though because by manipulating and cropping photos he altered the meaning, he altered the truth and opened the picture up to interpretation. It’s not something that I’d thought too much about before but it is definitely true. It’s even inspired me to sign up for another Coursera course titled The Camera Never Lies!11
The article looks at the intersection of law and art and asks the viewer a series of probing questions – about who they imagine in the chair, and about death as a public spectacle. This is supported by another review titled “How Warhol Did Not Murder Painting but Masterminded the Killing of Content” by Francesco Bonami.12
Is the work related to one of the five themes that we have explored in this course? If so, how?
Yes, it is part of the Death theme explored during week 3 of this course.
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Death and Disaster
Warhol’s Electric Chairs are in fact the most iconic images in his Death and Disaster series. His first painting on this subject appeared in 1963, when the death penalty was a contentious issue of public debate. The lack of human presence and the sense of hypnotic stillness combine to increase the poignancy and horror of these works. In a 1971 retrospective Warhol chose to have his art works displayed against his mechanically replicated and psychedelic Cow wallpaper, creating a strange juxtaposition of chilling social realism and kitsch.
Even today, electric chairs are still very much in the news. Apart from the art sales mentioned above, on May 22nd, 2014, Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam signed a bill permitting prison officials to use the electric chair to execute death row inmates, following a botched lethal injection in Oklahoma the previous month.13
“In 1962, Andy Warhol started a series of silkscreened paintings of death and disasters that included photographs of suicides, plane and car crashes, and tragedy-stricken celebrities such as Marilyn Monroe and Jacqueline Kennedy. All the images were taken from the print media. He depicted an electric chair in several groups of silk-screens throughout the 1960s, the first in 1963–the same year that New York’s Sing Sing State Penitentiary performed its last two executions by electric chair (capital punishment was banned in the United States from 1963-1997). For his 1968 retrospective at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm, Warhol produced yet another series, of which these works are a part. In these prints, however, he made some variations: he cropped the image to bring the electric chair to the foreground, and screened it in a variety of colours other than black, occasionally printing off-register double images. By the artist’s account, the replication of the image was intended to ’empty’ it of meaning.”
Label text for Andy Warhol, Electric Chair (1971), from the exhibition Art in Our Time: 1950 to the Present, Walker Art Centre, Minneapolis, September 5, 1999 to September 2, 2001.
From the Andy Warhol Catalogue Raisonné (Vol. 1):
Warhol associated the beginnings of his ‘death’ series with statistics he heard projecting holiday traffic fatalities in late 1962. Around Labour Day 1962, Warhol was probably still at work on the Marilyn paintings, a series also related in his mind to death. In mid-December, he was documented screening a Suicide painting… Thus it seems reasonable to propose that his first paintings based on car-crash subjects originated about this time. A loan receipt for an electric chair painting, Silver Disaster #6 (cat. no. 362), from the Guggenheim Museum, dated late February 1963 established the first terminus ad quem for a death-themed painting that year… Only six known works with the ‘Disaster’ in their titles are numbered: Green Disaster #2 (cat. no. 343); Black and White Disaster #4 (cat. no. 346); Orange Disaster #5 (cat. no. 356); Silver Disaster #6 (cat. no. 362); White Disaster #40 (cat. no. 346); and White Disaster #41 (cat. no. 427)… Disasters #2 and #4 are both serial car crashes… Disaster #5 and #6 are electric chair paintings, and Disasters #40 and #41 are examples of the Burning Car Crash series made later in 1963. It is not likely that the numbers would have been assigned by Warhol in the studio; more likely, they were given by the Stable Gallery as works were consigned or loaned to exhibitions.”
His friend Emile de Antonio, for example, stated that “Andy’s politics are on the surface. I mean Andy pretends he has no politics… Andy denies it. But he does have politics. I think it’s very hard to be a son of Czech immigrants, when your father was a manual worker, living in Pittsburgh, and not to develop political ideas.”7 Or, as Warhol’s collaborator Gerard Malanga put it, “Basically he’s a liar when he’s being interviewed.”
John Wilcock, The Autobiography and Sex Life of Andy Warhol, unnumbered page (1971).