Works from the Cy Twombly Foundation
Post Lot Text
Andy Warhol’s hauntingly powerful portrait of one of America’s most notorious icons is among the artist’s finest and most complex pieces of social commentary. The pinnacle of his famed Death and Disaster series, Little Electric Chair follows in the tradition of his portrayals of American culture, with its celebration of Campbell’s soup and Coca-Cola, but this time substituting the aspirational championing of consumerism with a more subversive view of Americana. With exceptional crispness and clarity, yet still containing an ominous sense of foreboding, the simple blue-screened image of the electric chair at New York State’s Sing Sing Correctional Facility exemplifies the complexity of the impassioned debate that the image invokes. Warhol was the master exploiter of the modern image, and in this work he displays all his skill and insight to produce a work of tremendous power and emotion, which questions values at the very heart of a civilized society.
Located in the center of a 22 x 28 inch canvas, the eponymous electric chair is almost overwhelmed by the starkness and darkness of the room in which it stands. Overflowing with gloom and completely devoid of unnecessary adornments, the concrete space houses only the implements necessary to its function. The stark contrast between the light and dark areas causes the chair, its restraints and even the pipes of the sprinkler system that hangs from the ceiling to all take on an ominously enhanced status in this evocative staging. Housed for many years in the private collection of the artist Cy Twombly, it was this divergence between shadow and light that attracted the artist to this particular painting—an admiration bolstered by his understanding of chiaroscuro gained from his detailed study of Italian Renaissance painting undertaken during his time in his adopted homeland. Warhol’s restrained aesthetic masterfully heightens the portentous sense of emptiness as well as enabling key minute details to be visible, a characteristic that makes this particular example of Little Electric Chair stand out as one of the most evocative from the series.
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. Screened by hand onto a canvas painted in ultramarine blue, this particular version is one of the most atmospheric. By using a color that is usually associated with peace and tranquility, Warhol’s choice of blue perhaps aligns most closely with his original intention for this series. As his assistant Gerard Malanga recalled, “I remembered…Andy’s remark how adding pretty colors 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).
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 scant evidence against Ethel, the Rosenbergs were sentenced to death in the midst of an 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 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.
Following on from his adoration of American celebrity in his portraits of Liz Taylor, Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley, Warhol’s Little Electric Chair’s must have come as a shock to a public who thought they knew what to expect from the master of Pop. But with these works he succeeded in distancing himself from the other artists of his generation who, for the most part, continued to occupy themselves with the mechanics of mass-market image-making. His Death and Disaster paintings, and his Little Electric Chair in particular, helped to define Warhol as an artist who was still at a truly ambitious stage in his career and willing to take on the biggest challenges of human life—mortality and the randomness of life and death. This quality has seen some scholars identify a link between Warhol’s work from this series to grand artistic traditions of earlier generations. “…he created a link for himself to not only the pessimistic humanism of Goya and Picasso, but more importantly, to the Abstract Expressionism and its existential and metaphysical concerns—concerns which had been mostly abandoned by the artists of the ‘60s” (P. Halley, “Fifteen Little Electric Chairs,” Andy Warhol: Little Electric Chair Paintings, New York, 2001, p. 8).
Andy Warhol had always been captivated by death and began his Death and Disaster series in 1962. The roots of this fascination can even be seen in his earlier fascination with celebrities, as many of his subjects—Marilyn Monroe and Jackie Kennedy for example—had either died or experienced death at a tragically young age. Even Elizabeth Taylor, probably the most glamorous of his celebrity portraits, was almost killed in a riding accident during the filming of National Velvet. These, together with his depictions of car crashes and suicides, demonstrate Warhol’s interest in the fleeting fragility of life. In Little Electric Chair Warhol takes this idea a step further, in that state-legislated death is never a quick and easy process; in some cases the trial and ensuing appeals process can extend for years. The poignant sense of waiting is perhaps the most affecting element of this work. The empty Little Electric Chair almost demands a sitter, one that only the viewer can envisage and provide. In doing this, this “empty” painting asks a series of difficult existential questions about crime and punishment and the nature and humanity of violence, mortality and death.