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Andy Warhol (1928-1987)
The Collection of Robert Shapazian
Andy Warhol (1928-1987)

Little Electric Chair

Andy Warhol (1928-1987)
Little Electric Chair
stamped with the Estate of Andy Warhol and the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc., stamps and numbered 'PA57.001' (on the overlap)
silkscreen ink on linen
22 x 28 in. (55.9 x 71.1 cm.)
Painted in 1964-1965.
The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc., New York
Gagosian Gallery, New York
Acquired from the above by the late owner, 1998
G. Frei and N. Printz, eds., The Andy Warhol Catalogue Raisonné of Paintings and Sculptures, 1964-1969, vol. 2A, New York, 2004, pp. 371 and 379, no. 1451 (illustrated in color).

Lot Essay

Andy Warhol's Little Electric Chair is the definitive image of Warhol's fascination with death and his continued search for subject matter taken from a wide range of popular culture. In this canvas, Warhol renders the bleak view of the execution chamber's interior in austere tones of white and black, which perfectly captures the location's ominous atmosphere and the intimate details of the process of death.

The electric chair that appears in this haunting image stands in an alienating concrete space, the ominously dark doorway marked SILENCE. Warhol's restrained aesthetic masterfully heightens this ominous sense of emptiness as well as enabling every minute detail to be visible.

One of a series of 32 paintings, each measuring 22 by 28 inches, the source image for Little Electric Chair comes from a photograph thought to be of the interior of New York's Sing Sing prison. It was used for the last two times in March and August of 1963 for the executions of Frederick Charles Wood and Eddie Lee Mays. These executions were a topical subject in New York at this time and public debate around them may well have played a part in prompting Warhol's choice of this sinister American symbol as topical and tendentious subject matter. After producing the screen from a photograph of the chamber, Warhol painted his canvases with a variety of colors over which he would make a single screening of the image of the chair in black ink. This results in each canvas in the series having a unique color field, with different combinations producing different levels of visual intensity. The simple black and white tonality of the present work replicates more faithfully the source image that Warhol would have seen as well as rendering the details of the image with a greater degree of clarity.

As part of his Death and Disaster series, Warhol was particularly attracted to the idea of the electric chair as an instantly recognizable symbol of legalized, almost ritualized death. Unlike the other works from this series, the violence in Little Electric Chair is absent, only implied, making the electric chair all the more terrifying.

Although he rarely strayed into conventional politics, Warhol's choice of this particular image of an electric chair was controversial. The source image for Little Electric Chair was a photograph first published in 1953 to accompany an article about the planned execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg on charges of espionage. Despite what was considered an inadequate amount of evidence, itself tainted by the nature of the sources, the Rosenbergs were sentenced to death in the midst of a hysterical anti-communist witch-hunt. The death sentence, never previously passed on a civilian in the United States for espionage, became the cause of heated debate. This became a landmark case, fomenting dissent amongst liberals as well as Communists in the age of increasing McCarthyism. Warhol only tended to use political images, for instance Mao or Jackie, because of their iconic value, and it is not known whether he felt strongly about the controversial issue of the death penalty, but he would have been aware of the divisive nature of the debate, which makes his choice of this image all the more intriguing.

Most of Warhol's Death and Disaster works focused either on tragedies, especially car-crashes, or suicides. The Electric Chairs occupy a strange no-man's-land in this dichotomy. The chair itself is the ultimate image of the state-endorsed, almost industrialized death, as factory-produced as Brillo Box (3c off), Campbell's Soup Cans or Dollar Bills which were so central to the imagery of both Warhol's output and the modern world. It is a killing machine, employed supposedly where needed and deserved. Nonetheless, the use of the chair was itself controversial when Warhol was producing these works, and was in fact outlawed in New York in 1963, when the very chair illustrated, in Sing Sing Prison, was used for the final time. However, even though the particular chair in this work ceases to function, the electric chair remains the method preferred for execution in a handful of states. The political nature of this work remains as valid today as it did when Warhol decided to turn it into art and thus, Little Electric Chair remains a forceful and jarring image of death.

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