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 postwar American life and reveal the darker realities that lay simmering 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. Iconic both in its provocative subject matter and its unchanging reappearance throughout Warhol’s work, Little Electric Chair also demonstrates, in a single, unforgettable image, the artist’s unique ability at creating art that embodied the complex and contradictory sentiments of the postwar era.
The idea for the Death and Disasters series came about in June 1962, when Henry Geldzahler presented a copy of the day’s newspaper to Warhol over lunch, the headline “129 DIE IN JET” emblazoned across the front page. “I wanted Andy to get serious,” Geldzahler recalled, “I said, ‘It is enough life. It is time for a little death’” (H. Geldzahler, quoted in S. Watson, Factory Made: Warhol and the Sixties, New York, 2003, p. 104). Soon after, Warhol transferred the image of the plane wreckage onto canvas, the emphatic headline announcing the theme that would preoccupy the artist for the following years. As he famously explained: “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 Labour Day—a holiday—and every time you turned on the radio they said something like, ‘4 million are going to die.’ That started it” (Warhol, quoted in G. Swenson, “What is Pop Art?” November 1963, in K. Goldsmith, ed., I’ll Be Your Mirror: The Selected Andy Warhol Interviews, 1962-1987, New York, 2004, p. 19).
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—the first presentation of his art in Europe—that he planned to title “Death in America.” Believing that the French intelligentsia would scorn his Pop depictions of consumerist icons, Warhol instead chose to present the dark realities of everyday life in 60s America; those which were often overlooked in a zealous desire to uphold the wholesome, golden facade of the postwar American dream. 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—each topical and specifically American tragedies—revealed the underside of the country’s overtly consumerist and capitalist culture. Chronicling celebrity death as well as the mundane fatalities of anonymous individuals, each group of this spectacular series offered, “discerning but distanced diagnoses of morbid American symptoms - gluttonous consumerism, commodity worship, infatuation with celebrity culture, racial terror, social hypocrisy, criminality, scandal, death” (O. Enwezor, “Andy Warhol and the Painting of Catastrophe” in Andy Warhol: From A to B and Back Again, exh. cat., New York, 2018-2019, p. 35).
The most disturbing, provocative and sinister of this series, the Electric Chairs serve as the quintessential symbols of the group. Presenting a uniquely American mode of death—this form of execution originated in New York and struck Warhol as a “typically American way to go” (D. Bourdon, Warhol, New York, 1989, p. 154)—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, Ossining, New York. It was here that Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, the notorious couple convicted of Soviet espionage, were executed a few months later in June 1953. It is no coincidence that at the time Warhol painted the present work in 1964–1965, the issue of capital punishment had come to the fore of contemporary discourse once more, with protest against the death penalty 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 color before printing the silkscreen. For this group of Little Electric Chairs, the artist used a range of colors from garish cadmium yellow and orange, to sugary lavenders and pinks—bright, artificial and ‘decorative’ tones creating a disturbing contrast with the sinister subject matter printed on top. The rare, soft pink of the present work, which has previously been exhibited as “The Pink Chair,” is in fact a very light shade of ‘indo orange red.’
Both the authorless monochrome ground and the near-mechanical mode of silkscreen printing were perfectly suited to the cold, mechanised method of killing that the image presented. While this depersonalised mode of production and the repetition of the same image throughout the series would seem to affirm Warhol’s famed statement that, “when you see a gruesome picture over and over again, it doesn’t really have any effect” (A. Warhol, quoted in G. Swenson, op. cit., p. 19), 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. Warhol neither numbs nor diminishes the impact of this image but rather forces the viewer to confront head on this stark, terror-filled chamber of death, one of the many “open sores” of American life at this time (T. Crow, “Saturday Disasters: Trace and Reference in Early Warhol,” Art in America, May 1987).
Unlike the Car Crash works, in which bodies are strewn out of wrecked cars or the Race Riots, which present frenzied snapshots of conflict and brutality, the Electric Chairs are exempt from explicit violence, defined by a stillness, emptiness and silence that sets them apart from these action-filled visions of death. Lacking any sign of human presence, Little Electric Chair is filled with a chilling sense of foreboding. Spot lit and set just off centre, the instrument of death stands empty, the restraints hanging down limply as it awaits its next victim. The real terror is left unseen making it all the more horrifying; the viewer is left to imagine the gruesome events that will follow. Perfectly cropped to Warhol’s exact specification, this image appears as if a still from a film, a morbid theatre of death that simultaneously repulses and intrigues. Indeed, the cinematic, film noir composition and macabre contrast of light and shadow set amidst the soft pink glow all serve to endow this scene with a hypnotic visual power and a disturbing beauty.
It is in its very absence of human content that this image paradoxically serves as the complete embodiment of the concept of death that Warhol was exploring with this series. As Neil Printz has written, “The photograph selected by Warhol represents death as absence and silence, a conjured void” (N. Printz, “Painting Death in America,” in Andy Warhol: Death and Disasters, exh. cat., Houston, 1988-1989, p. 16). Picturing this empty death chamber and solitary chair in an image that is at once notorious yet entirely depersonalised, Warhol encapsulated his own ideas of death: “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. I always thought I’d like my own tombstone to be blank. No epitaph, and no name. Well, actually, I’d like it to say ‘Figment’” (Warhol, quoted in Printz, ibid., p. 17).