Electric Chairs

Andy Warhol

In June 1962, Andy Warhol met Henry Geldzahler for lunch at Serendipity in New York. The young Metropolitan Museum curator had realised Warhol’s potential earlier than most, and badly wanted him to move on from the consumerist homages he had become known for, to get serious, and to make something truly profound. "It's enough life, it's time for a little death" said Geldzahler, flourishing a newspaper. The front page of the New York Mirror that day bore the headline '129 DIE IN JET' and a photograph of an air crash. From that, the idea for Warhol’s seminal Death and Disaster series germinated. Soon, a silkscreened painting using that entire newspaper front page as its subject was complete, the first of a group of paintings taking as their subjects car wrecks; the tragedies of the famous; suicides; deaths of unknown people (such as Tunafish Disaster in which two housewives were killed by poisonous tinned tuna) and, of course, the Electric Chair. The works may have dealt with loss, tragedy and destruction but, they were also intended to be, and became, a documentary series of modern American history.

Warhol’s interest in the marriage of death and publicity (or celebrity), had already begun with his earliest portraits of Marilyn Monroe, and continued with Jackie Kennedy. The theme suited the artist’s working methods: readily available material was sourced from newspapers and police photo archives and his use of silkscreen to repeat the message and produce work quickly was effective in a way he could not have foreseen. "You pick a photograph, blow it up, transfer it in glue onto silk, and then roll ink across so that the ink goes through the silk but not through the glue. That way you get the same image, slightly different each time. It was all so simple – quick and chancy. I was thrilled with it." (1)

Great canvases emerged from his studio upon which images were restated in blocks, heavy with ink, unlike any others that had been created by any other artist. Described as "the most powerful and searing works that Warhol ever made" (2), he won over the critics who had previously accused him of aiming too low.

Beginning in 1964, Warhol produced paintings based on a ten-year-old press photograph of the electric chair used in the execution of American spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. Taken in 1953 in the death chamber of New York's Sing Sing prison, the photograph showed where the Rosenbergs had been executed for passing nuclear secrets to the Soviet Union. Warhol eventually cropped the image down, removing a doorway and a ‘Silence’ sign, to concentrate on the chair. The viewer is forced to consider the chair and the chair alone, and to feel the inherent visual insistence of what went on there. The image became one that Warhol viewed as crucial to his own artistic development, and he would frequently return to it throughout his career, including in his later work by which time he was unquestionably recognised as a modern master. Warhol produced several versions of the image in canvas in a number of states and colour variations: some as a single Electric Chair, and some with multiple renderings of the entire chamber on a grand scale, for example Twelve Electric Chairs, in the collection of the Walker Art Center.

The importance and the success of the image from our view now, 50 years later, is due to Warhol’s harnessing of the power of an object of dark modern history, an instrument of death. The chair is alone, demanding attention but radiating with all the latent horror of a modern-day crucifix, that is to say with less horror than one would expect to feel. Unsettling yes, but few now could claim to be truly horrified. By repetition and familiarity, the chair loses its power to appal, just as the thousands of devotional scenes painted by Old Masters over centuries, and the worship of millions of crucifixes, have made that an object of contemplation instead. Who winces in terror just through the simple act of walking into a church and standing before a cross? Thoughts of the excruciation have to be actively called up, such is the modern neutrality of the cross. And just as the crucifixion is one of the most visited subjects in the history of art, the Electric Chair has unquestionably become one of the most iconic images in Contemporary Art. Warhol achieved the feat of taking one of the most macabre images he could find, and effectively neutering it.

In 1971 Warhol decided to produce a set of ten screenprints of the Electric Chair in an edition of 250, published by the dealer Bruno Bischofberger. With the repetition inherent in creating a box-set of varying colour castes of a single image, Warhol created unexpected relationships between areas of light and shadow. Some of the images are monochrome and stark, others are dark and heavily contrasted, some are intensely luminous as if lit by a fluorescent sculpture by Dan Flavin. This variation forces the viewer to consider each corner of the empty room for much longer and in much greater detail than one would ever imagine probable. Taking the suite of ten images as a whole, the overall effect of the series becomes somewhat cinematic: one can imagine a film of each work in turn, projector-sprocket noise whirring, the cellulose imperfections flashing and stuttering during playback, the eye searching out new and minute aspects. The scene portrayed can certainly be seen as something of a film set, or an empty stage. There is the chair, and there is the viewer. Rather than looking away though, we are fascinated, repelled neither by the terrible object/subject or, importantly, by having seen enough. In 1964 his, generally-accepted masterwork in film, Empire was simply an eight-hour-long single shot of the Empire State Building. Warhol had found a way, in various media and for varying reasons, to make the unwatchable spellbinding.

Far from concerning himself that such unsettling subject matter would prove to be commercially problematic, Warhol proved himself astute by correctly predicting that his audience would accept the image. His bold claim instantly became famous, and later became true: “You'd be surprised how many people want to hang an electric chair on their living-room wall. ‘Specially if the background color matches the drapes.” (3)

The record price for an Electric Chair image occurred in 2014, when a 1967-8 canvas achieved over $20,000,000 at auction in New York, and the record price for a set of the 10 Electric Chairs screenprints from the present edition is $629,000.

(1) The artist in: Pat Hackett, POPism: The Warhol Sixties, London 2007, p. 28

(2) Keith Hartley, Warhol: A Celebration of Life...and Death, Edinburgh 2007, p. 51

(3) Warhol quoted in Moderna Museet (1968), Andy Warhol: Stockholm, Moderna Museet, February–March 1968 (exhib. cat.), Malmö:

Artist
Andy Warhol (1928-1987)
Title
Electric Chairs
Title Notes
The full set, in original carton as issued
Medium
Screenprints in colours
Date
1971
Sheet
Each: 35 1/2 x 48 in : 90.2 x 121.9 cm
Edition
From the edition of 250, each signed and dated in black ball-point pen and stamp numbered 036/250 on the reverse
Printer
Printed by Silkprint Kettner, Zurich, with their inkstamps on the reverse
Publisher
Published by Bruno Bischofberger, Zurich, with their inkstamps on the reverse
Provenance
Acquired directly from Bruno Bischofsberger by the previous owner
Literature
Feldman & Schelmann (F&S) II 74-83
Notes
The full set of ten, still in the original carton as issued, never framed or exposed to light. Colours fresh and bright as printed, and each in near-pristine condition. RARE IN THIS CONDITION.
Reference
C16-56
Status
Sold