With its chair, the instrument of death, looming in the otherwise unarticulated surroundings of the death chamber, Big Electric Chair, executed in 1967, is a simple and striking demonstration of the issues at the heart of Warhol's Death and Disaster series. While the chair is instantly recognizable, an iconic image of legalized, almost ritualized and supposedly civilized killing, the decorative fuchsia upon which it has been presented here disrupts the menacing atmosphere the death chamber customarily invokes. Likewise the chair is empty, a factor which serves both to remove the human element, the concept of execution, from the picture and at the same time to give a sense of imminence, as though the victim were waiting in the eaves.
In fact, when this photograph was first publicized in newspapers in 1953, it was as the illustration accompanying an article about the controversial forthcoming execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. Despite what was considered an inadequate amount of evidence, itself tainted by the nature of the sources, especially a convicted spy, the Rosenbergs were sentenced in the midst of a hysterical witch-hunt. More importantly, perhaps, was the lack of evidence against Ethel, who was to become the first woman to be executed in many decades. The death sentence, never previously passed on a civilian in the United States for espionage, became the cause of heated debate but ultimately the execution was stayed, but not for long. This became a landmark case, fomenting dissent amongst liberals as well as Communists in the age of increasing McCarthyism. Warhol tended to use political images, for instance Mao or Jackie, because of their iconic value, and it is therefore highly questionable whether he was here making a rare foray into political commentary in his Electric Chairs.
Regardless of the political implications of his use of this image, the fact that such an immense story was born from this particular image must have made it all the more suitable as a source for Warhol. In some of his earlier Electric Chairs, more of the room was visible, giving the viewer more context. Here, however, he has closed in on the chair itself, leaving the background almost completely blank. This lack of any clues as to where the chair is, or where the image is from, diminishes its significance. Warhol has chosen an image that, although it openly refers to state-controlled execution, gives no further clues as to the epic nature of the scene it represents. A similar process is at work in almost all the Death and Disaster works: he only produced images of Marilyn after her suicide, the glamour and beauty of the photographs jarring with the still fresh speculation over her death. Likewise, other works merely showed headlines or repeated their images so many times that they appeared decorative, a strange paisley of tragedy, making the deaths seem mass-produced and therefore bland. Warhol fixed upon images which hid their true meanings and implications, creating an almost figurative abstraction from the scenes.
It was in 1963, the year that Warhol began his Electric Chairs, that Hannah Arendt's now notorious phrase, 'the banality of evil' was coined. In a sense, Warhol is exploring the banality of death in the modern world. In an interview in which he discussed the origins of his Death and Disaster works, he discussed the presence of this banality in life:
"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. But when you see a gruesome picture over and over again, it doesn't really have any effect" (Warhol quoted in Andy Warhol Death and Disasters, exh.cat., Houston, 1988, p. 19).
When death is mass-produced and publicized, it numbs the listener, gradually becoming a white noise.
Most of Warhol's Death and Disaster works focussed 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 the soapboxes, Campbell's Soup Cans or Dollar Bills 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, the chair by no means ceased to function, and continues as the preferred means of execution in a handful of states. Thus it remains a forceful and jarring image of death.
It is interesting that the images Warhol produced in 1967 of the electric chair were on a large scale, avoiding any chance of daintiness. Big Electric Chair is similar in color to the famous Lavender Disaster in the Menil Collection, Houston, which appears almost as a frieze of chairs. However, Big Electric Chair confronts the viewer with a chair that is illustrated almost at half size. This chair invades the viewer's environment, and while the color hints at the decorative, the chair is packed with force and menace. Unlike the frieze-like images like the Menil work, Big Electric Chair is a modern memento mori, an image that does not skirt around death but instead screams at the viewer, a potent reminder of our mortality.
Fig. 1 Original photograph used for Little Electric Chair
The Archives of the Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh
c 2002 Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts/ARS, New York
Fig. 2 Installation photograph of Andy Warhol at the Whitney Museum of American Art, 1971
c Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts/ARS, New York
Fig. 3 Andy Warhol, Lavender Diaster, 1963
The Menil Collection, Houston
c 2002 ARS, New York