"There is little, if any, of Warhol's work that is not about death." - Philip Brophy
Evocative, sinister and haunting in its clinical depiction of state-sponsored death, Andy Warhol's Little Electric Chair is the quintessential image from the artist's incomparable Death and Disaster Series. Warhol based the painting upon a grainy, black-and-white photograph of the electric chair purportedly used in Sing Sing Penitentiary in New York, a high-contrast press photo that would have been widely reproduced. In Little Electric Chair, Warhol amps up the contrast to spectacular effect--the single, unoccupied chair is highlighted while the spectre of dark, black shadows seem to hover like storm clouds in the background. The unnatural yellow hue that Warhol employs heightens the grisly effect of the chair, whose shackles and restraints fall limply to the side. Although he created about forty different versions of the subject, each rendered with a different color--some of them cloyingly sweet in lavender or pink--the color yellow seems particularly well-suited to Warhol's aims, and calls to mind the artificiality of the room's fluorescent lighting and the electricity used to jolt the condemned man to death. A poignant and provocative work, Little Electric Chair is one of the most powerful and unforgettable icons of Warhol's oeuvre and truly represents the dark side of America.
Warhol began the Death and Disaster series in the summer of 1962 with the monumentally-scaled 129 Die in Jet, in which he transferred the image from the June 4, 1962 edition of the New-York Mirror by means of an opaque projector, painting by hand. In the massive canvas, the grisly wreckage of the plane's burned-out wing is writ large, made into an iconic image that conveys the gruesomeness of this particular death. Over the next two years, Warhol created a gripping series of paintings that would come to be known as the Death and Disaster series-suicide victims, the wreckage of smashed up cars, the atomic bomb, civil rights protesters attacked by dogs, people unwittingly poisoned by contaminated tuna-fish, and the electric chair. The paintings present the kind of day-to-day realities of living in post-war America that Walter Hopps refers to as "commonplace catastrophe." Concurrently, he was at the same time creating the seminal portraits of Marilyn Monroe, which he began just after her suicide on August 5, 1962. In an oft-quoted interview from this era, Warhol discusses the impetus for the Death and Disaster series. When asked why he started the "Death" series, he responded:
"I guess it was the big plane crash picture, the front page of a newspaper: 129 DIE. I was also painting the Marilyns. I realized that everything I was doing must have been Death. It was Christmas or Labor Day-a holiday-and every time you turned on the radio they said something like, '4 million are going to die.' That started it." (A. Warhol, quoted in Gene Swenson, "Interview," Artnews, November 1963).
Warhol began the Electric Chair paintings in 1963, the same year that the electric chair in Sing Sing State Penitentiary performed the State's last two executions on Frederick Charles Wood on March 21 and Eddie Lee Mays on August 15. As a result, the subject of execution became extremely topical in the press. The artist made three groups of paintings using the same haunting photograph of the empty death chamber-in 1963, 1965 and 1967.
The Electric Chair was a particularly sinister image that revealed the dark side of America. As such, it was a fitting embodiment for Warhol's first exhibition at the Sonnabend Gallery in Paris in 1964 that he wanted to call "Death in America." The exhibit was the artist's first one-man show in a European venue, and it has been suggested that Warhol wanted to depict an inverted version of the American dream. Like his portraits of "most-wanted men" that reveal the seamy underbelly that lurks beneath a gleaming, post-war facade, the Electric Chair paintings illustrate a state-sanctioned death that is typically hidden behind the prison's barred walls. Furthermore, the electric chair by no means promised a swift, painless death; several botched attempts have resulted over the years, in which inmates were electrocuted and burned, but not entirely killed.
One critic has recently written: "If Warhol is about America, then the electric chair is the seat of American culture. Like a transmogrified porch rocking chair, this fusion of Gothic American folk and maverick industrial inventiveness declares its own ingenuity as applied to the act of killing. Most importantly, the emptied tonality of the image through Warhol's unperturbed importation filters out all humanist distortion to allow the image to deeply resonate....The image becomes death in order to demonstrate death," (Philip Brophy, "Die Warhol Die," Andy Warhol, exh. cat., Queensland Art Gallery, 2007, p. 73).
In Warhol's Death and Disaster series, the viewer is subject to the some of the most violent imagery in the history of art at that point. Warhol's audacious incorporation of these horrifying images are often repeated in a single work-twice, twelve, fifteen times across the canvas. Like the barrage of news media imagery that flows through daily life, Warhol understood that a repeated image dissolves and loses its efficacy. It becomes like patterned wallpaper, like static or "white noise" that fills the background but does not capture notice. Warhol presciently understood this effect, saying "when you see a gruesome picture over and over again, it really doesn't have any effect," (A. Warhol, quoted in Gene Swenson, ibid.).
In Little Electric Chair, however, Warhol seems to highlight the resonance that a single, powerful image can produce. Rather than repeat it, Warhol instead insists on the chair's singularity, thereby conveying its importance. The preeminent Warhol scholar Neil Printz describes the electric chair as "the most iconic image in the Death and Disaster series," (Neil Printz, "Painting Death in America," Andy Warhol: Death and Disaster, exh. cat., Menil Collection, Houston, 1988, p. 16).
Of all Warhol's Death and Disaster paintings, the Electric Chair is the only work that shows no scene of violence. In this way, because Warhol presents a single, isolated electric chair in an empty execution chamber, the viewer is left to extrapolate the action of the scene. In essence, Warhol creates a kind of mise-en-scéne that recalls the work of Alfred Hitchcock or film noir, in which the real terror of the scene is left unfilmed. The mind of the viewer spectacularly re-enacts the gruesome electrocution of the victim, which is undoubtedly more terrifying a spectacle because it is created in the mind's eye. Heiner Bastian explains: "In the pictures showing the electric chair in the execution room, Warhol again operates solely with the tension of allusion, with those connotations that refer tosomething unspoken, and which, like a magnetic pull, point to the event that is hidden from sight and only ever implied. On the wall of the execution chamber the word 'Silence' is illuminated, but it is the emptiness in the Electric Chair pictures that alludes to...this fearfully mystified sight of the death machine and the horror of moral retribution," (Heiner Bastian, "Rituals of Unfulfillable Individuality-The Whereabouts of Emotions," Andy Warhol Retrospective, exh. cat., Neue Nationalgalerie Berlin and Tate Modern, London, 2002, p. 30).
Throughout his career, the spectre of death has haunted Warhol's work, from the early portraits of Marilyn painted in the months following her suicide, to the paintings of a veiled Jackie Kennedy just after the president's assassination. One critic has recently written, "more than an affected stance, death was the fibre of Warhol's constructed world," (Philip Brophy, ibid., 2007, p. 72). Warhol himself suffered near-death from a gunshot wound in 1968 and the incident left him shattered; the rest of his career was marked by an unshakeable anxiety and the fear of a repeat incident. He turned to rendering his own self-portrait and the vanitas-themed skull paintings as a result. In this way, Warhol's Little Electric Chair might be considered a self-portrait of the artist.
Neil Printz suggests that because Warhol depicts an empty electric chair, he therefore implies that the condemned has simply vanished, which evidences Andy's own desire to disappear when he dies: "I never understood why when you died, you didn't just vanish and everything could keep going the way it was, only you just wouldn't be there. I always thought I'd like my own tombstone to be blank. No epitaph and no name," (A. Warhol, quoted in America, New York, 1985, pp. 126 and 129; reprinted in Neil Printz, "Painting Death in America," Andy Warhol: Death and Disaster, p. 17).
Warhol created roughly forty versions of the Electric Chair, each executed in black silkscreen ink applied over a differently colored ground. It has been noted that Warhol used bright and fanciful "decorator"--type colors in the Electric Chair series, from green to blue and even pink. Gerard Malanga, who worked closely with Warhol during this era, recalls: "Imagine, the premiere of Andy's Electric Chair paintings in Toronto! Each painting seemed identical yet no two were really alike. Every colour imaginable....Andy remarked how adding pretty colours to a picture as gruesome as this would change people's perceptions of acceptance," (G. Malanga, 'Electric Chairs on Display in Toronto for First Time!', Andy Warhol: Little Electric Chair Paintings, New York, 2001, p. 8).
While some of Warhol's earliest paintings were limited to a palette of black and white, the era in which Little Electric Chair was created is marked by a bold embrace of vivid color, which is especially evident in the Marilyn "flavors" of 1962, the Liz paintings and the Death and Disaster series. In Little Electric Chair, Warhol's selection of the color yellow truly heightens the terror of the scene, calling to mind Rainer Crone's comment that the colors in the series "serve to intensify the effect of alienation created by the realism of the visual content," (R. Crone, Andy Warhol, 1970, p. 29). Rather than use a naturally-occurring hue, Warhol selects an altogether artificial yellow as the ground color for Little Electric Chair. The yellow that Warhol chose is altogether institutional in feeling and tone--the color of traffic safety signs and road markers. Furthermore, because Warhol's silkscreen ink was a commercially processed product that he applied directly from the tube, it is also not unlike the artificial color of certain food products, like French's yellow mustard, an American commodity as ubiquitous as Campbell's tomato soup. Though not exactly the same hue, the painting can be compared to Warhol's Mustard Race Riot and might therefore conjure more sinister aspects of the color, like mustard gas or even agent orange.
A deeply personal and highly resonant work, the Little Electric Chair provides a haunting glimpse into the inner life of the artist while providing pertinent commentary on the sociopolitical landscape of Post-War America. Shortly after it was painted, the painting was acquired by the preeminent collectors Kimiko and John Powers, who purchased the work from the Leo Castelli Gallery in New York. Considered the most iconic painting from Warhol's Death and Disaster series, the Little Electric Chair is a brilliant example of the artist's best work.