Uniquely American, the electric chair was invented in 1889 and first used in 1890 to execute William Kemmler, a man convicted of slaying his wife with an axe. The use of electricity as a means of execution was first contemplated in America in the early 1880s. America led the world in pioneering the practical use of electricity and the possibility that it might offer a more practical alternative means of execution to the then current practice of public hanging was widely welcomed. Execution by hanging, frequently poorly prepared and carried out, often led to slow and horrific scenes of strangulation or decapitation that provoked public outrage and even riots. Electricity by contrast was a new and invisible technology, that, alongside the invention of the light bulb and the recent wiring-up of the country's towns and cities was, quite literally, a potent symbol of America's bright future. In addition it appeared to offer a swift, clean and relatively painless death that could be demonstrated as humane while at the same time symbolizing the march of progress. Actively promoted by no less a luminary than Thomas Edison who saw in the electric chair a chance to market his own DC brand of electricity and put one over on his arch rival Westinghouse, the infamous "mercy seat" was inaugurated in 1890 and soon became the primary tool of execution throughout the Untied States.
The electric chair that appears in Andy Warhol's haunting images of a lone apparatus standing in an alienating empty concrete space surmounted with a one-word sign commanding "Silence", is thought to be the chair at Sing Sing State Penitentiary in New York. It was used for the last two times in March and August of 1963 for the executions of Frederick Charles Wood and Eddie Lee Mays. These executions were a topical subject in New York at this time and discussion of them may have played a part in prompting Warhol's choice of the electric chair as subject-matter.
What particularly impressed Warhol about the electric chair was its Americanness. The "Chair", by then almost a character in many crime novels and "B" movies, was a uniquely American "way to go". In this, the electric chair offered itself as the perfect subject for inclusion in the series of works Warhol was preparing for his first exhibition at the Sonnabend Gallery in Paris - works on the theme of "Death in America". A commercial mass-produced death-machine, the electric chair, like Warhol's can of poisoned tuna fish, is a sinister commodity that establishes the underside or dark alternative to his bright garish imagery of American consumerism such as the Campbell Soup Cans, and Coca Cola bottles. As if to emphasize this, all of Warhol's 'Death and Disaster' series of paintings, (as this group of works later came to be known), were executed in a grainy dark black silkscreen prints over a radiating monochrome background.
This technique, which runs from Warhol's scenes of Car Crashes and Suicides to those of the Race Riots and the Atomic Bomb, is particularly effective with the lonely, solitary and iconic electric chair. On purely a pictorial level, the emptiness, and minimal vacancy of the image is profoundly disturbing,. This is however, also augmented by the sombre tones of Warhol's grainy print and again reinforced by the ominous sign ordering "silence". Of all of Warhol's "Death and Disaster" series, the electric chair is the only work that shows no scene of violence, and this is precisely the reason why it is also the most violent and the most powerful, disturbing and memorable of the entire series. The empty chair and the vacant, silent room are pregnant to the point of bursting with a terrifying violence that screams from the dark grains of the empty shadows of the picture; but it is an implied violence. One that is all the more terrifying because it exists only in the mind of the viewer and is projected onto the image, filling in the disquieting blanks of the empty scene.
Warhol was acutely conscious of this act of pictorial coercion and eager to create works that though seemingly objective, actively encouraged the viewer's complicity as well as questioning it. The empty chair has been a motif often used in art history, most famously in Samuel Filde's portrait of Dickens' vacant seat at Gad's Hill and Vincent Van Gogh's empty chairs painted for his father and for Paul Gauguin. Manipulating this pictorial convention and turning the way these images suggest the melancholy absence of a person on its head, Warhol, in this 'empty chair' painting creates a work that throws this mental projection of the viewer back at them. The empty chair seems to demand and await an occupant, 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.
Source image for Electric Chair c 2004 Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Installation view of Andy Warhol, Whitney Museum of American Art, 1971 c 2004 Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York