Made by the American artist Andy Warhol, Electric Chair 1964 consists of a medium-size canvas that has been screenprinted with silver acrylic paint. In the centre of the canvas is depicted an unoccupied electric chair set in an empty room, and the chair bears a high-backed frame, as well as leather straps at its foot and longer straps and buckles at its sides. A cable running out from underneath the seat lies curled in front of the chair. Behind it, a small wooden table is shown against the back wall, and a barely visible sign that reads ‘Silence’ is positioned in the top right corner of the composition. The empty floor space in front of the chair is seemingly illuminated, being saturated with silver paint that fades to suggest dark and patchy shadows towards the edges of the canvas. The surface of the work is fairly uneven – the silver paint, which appears to have been applied over an under layer of bright green paint, has been absorbed into the canvas during the printing process, and the work has been lined with a second canvas. The lining adhesive has impregnated parts of the fabric of the canvas, creating a rippling effect. The work is signed and dated on the verso.
Electric Chair was made in 1964 in Warhol’s studio in New York. In the early 1960s, Warhol began hand-printing images onto canvas and translating this technique to paper. Images were printed in monochrome colours and, according to the gallerist Frayda Feldman and the art publisher Jörg Schellmann, these were screened in a way ‘that retained the graininess and immediacy of the mass media images on which they were based’ (Feldman and Schellmann, 2003, p.45), creating imperfections and variations in each work such that they retained a handmade quality. This same process was used to create Electric Chair: here, the chair depicted is based on a press photograph from 13 January 1953 of the death chamber at Sing Sing Prison in New York, where American citizens Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed that year for passing information about the atomic bomb to Russia during the Second World War. In 1980 Warhol described his new process of printing as a significant change in his practice: ‘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.’ (Warhol and Hackett 2007, p.28.)
Electric Chair is part of Warhol’s substantial Death and Disaster series that the artist started in 1962, early examples of which depicted car crashes and suicides as illustrated in newspaper images (see, for instance, Race Riot 1963 and Ambulance Disaster 1963). With this series Warhol began to explore the effect of reproducing such images repeatedly across a canvas, testing his hypothesis that, as he suggested in 1963, ‘when you see a gruesome picture over and over again, it doesn’t really have an effect’ (quoted in G.R. Swenson, ‘“What is Pop Art?” Interviews with Eight Painters’, Art News, November 1963, p.61). Warhol’s fascination with death indicated his interest in its continual presence in our everyday lives, but also our apparent distance from its impact. Notably, in contrast to the repetition of earlier Death and Disaster images that depicted the tragedies of its human subjects, Electric Chair is devoid of all human presence. As the art historian Neil Printz has observed, Electric Chair ‘is remarkable for its visual sobriety and emotional understatement’, and the emptiness and stillness of the room ‘represents death as absence and silence’. (Printz in Menil Collection 1989, p.17.)
As a painter, Warhol created images based on products and advertising in popular culture, fusing commonplace, mass-manufactured images with mechanical reproduction, a style that came to be known as pop art. For early critics of Warhol’s work such as Thomas Hess, his repetition of deathly images only served to undermine the critical ‘integrity’ of art (Hess in Menil Collection 1989, p.17). However, later criticism suggests that Warhol’s Death and Disaster series drew attention to the gratuitous repetition of images in the media and brought viewers back into contact with the events themselves (see G.R. Swenson in Menil Collection 1989, p.17).
In subsequent iterations of the electric chair image, Warhol experimented with colour and composition. In 1971 he produced a series of ten electric chair screenprints on paper. Here, the images are more tightly focused on the chair itself, such that it occupies a larger proportion of the pictorial space, and each has been printed in a bold colour such as yellow, pink, blue and orange (see Tate P07725–P07734).
Andy Warhol: Death and Disasters, exhibition catalogue, Menil Collection, Houston 1989, pp.16–17.
Frayda Feldman and Jörg Schellmann, Andy Warhol Prints: A Catalogue Raisonné 1962–1987, 4th edn, New York 2003.
Andy Warhol and Pat Hackett, POPism: The Warhol Sixties, London and New York 2007, pp.21, 28.
Supported by Christie’s.