A chilling portrait of one of America’s most infamous inventions, Little Electric Chair is the defining image of Andy Warhol’s ‘Death and Disasters’ series, a seminal body of work that saw the artist penetrate the shining veneer of post-war American life and reveal the darker realities that lay beneath.
The sinister spectacle of the electric chair, alone save for the SILENCE sign that emerges from the darkness of the door, is bathed in a soft shade of flesh-toned pink, a colour unique to this group of works that was executed in late 1964-1965.
The idea for the ‘Death and Disasters’ series came about in June 1962 when the curator Henry Geldzahler presented a copy of the day’s newspaper to Warhol over lunch. The headline on the front page screamed ‘129 DIE IN JET’. ‘I wanted Andy to get serious,’ Geldzahler recalled. ‘I said, “It is enough life. It is time for a little death”.’
Soon after, Warhol transferred the image of the plane wreckage onto canvas, the headline announcing the theme that would preoccupy the artist for the following years. He was also painting the Marilyns at the time. ‘I realised that everything I was doing must have been Death,’ he later reflected. ‘Every time you turned on the radio they said something like, “Four million are going to die.” That started it.’
‘Electric Chair’ is filled with a chilling sense of foreboding. The real terror is left unseen, making it all the more horrifying
Over the next two years, Warhol explored the theme of death through a variety of subjects, creating a powerful body of work that was intended for an exhibition at the Sonnabend Gallery in Paris in the spring of 1964. It was to be the first presentation of his art in Europe, a show he planned to title Death in America. Believing that the French intelligentsia would scorn his Pop depictions of consumerist icons, Warhol chose instead to present the dark realities of everyday life in 1960s America.
In contrast to the cool commercialism of his Coca Cola bottles and Campbell’s soup cans, Warhol’s depictions of suburban car crashes, people jumping to their deaths from skyscrapers, the atomic bomb, race riots in the Deep South and more revealed the underside of his country’s consumerist and capitalist culture. The most disturbing, provocative and sinister of this series, the ‘Electric Chairs’ serve as the quintessential symbols of the group.
Death by electrocution was at the forefront of people’s minds when Warhol began the group in early 1963. The source image was a press photograph from January 1953 that showed the electric chair, known as ‘Old Sparky’, at Sing Sing State Penitentiary in Ossining, New York. It was here that Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, the couple convicted of Soviet espionage, were executed a few months later.
It is no coincidence that in 1964-65 when Warhol painted this work — which comes from The Collection of S.I. Newhouse — the issue of capital punishment had come to the fore once again. Protest against the death penalty was at an all-time high. In New York, the electric chair in Sing Sing was used for the final times in March and August of 1963, before being finally outlawed two years later.
Taking this press photograph, which was already highly contrasted to increase its legibility for media dissemination, Warhol applied a single layer of monochrome colour before printing the silkscreen. For this group of ‘Little Electric Chairs’, the artist used a range of colours — from garish cadmium yellow and orange, to sugary lavenders and pinks — to create a disturbing contrast with the sinister subject matter printed on top. The rare, soft pink of the work offered in New York, which has previously been exhibited as The Pink Chair, is in fact a very light shade of ‘indo orange red’.
Warhol’s depersonalised mode of production and the repetition of the same image throughout the series would seem to affirm his statement about seeing a gruesome picture over and over again, and it losing its effect. The result of these works is in fact the opposite: it is the seeming indifference to the meaning of this image that paradoxically heightens the quiet horror it exudes.
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Unlike the ‘Car Crash’ or the ‘Race Riots’ works, the ‘Electric Chairs’ are exempt from explicit violence; they are defined by a stillness, emptiness and silence. Lacking any sign of human presence, Little Electric Chair is filled with a chilling sense of foreboding. The real terror is left unseen, making it all the more horrifying; the viewer is left to imagine the gruesome events that will follow.
It is in its very absence of human content that this image serves as the complete embodiment of the concept of death that Warhol was exploring with this series. ‘I never understood why when you died, you didn’t just vanish and everything could just keep going the way it was, only you just wouldn’t be there,’ he said. ‘I always thought I’d like my own tombstone to be blank.’