Andy Warhol’s Little Electric Chair remains one of the most powerful and disturbing icons of twentieth century art. In this haunting and sinister depiction, Warhol creates an eerie mise-en-scène in which the frank portrayal of an empty electric chair is bathed in the cool, hushed tones of ethereal blue. Warhol’s exquisite rendering exudes a remarkable grace that belies the pragmatic quality of his original source photograph. The electric chair featured in Warhol’s painting for the first time in 1963, taken from a black-and-white wire photograph of the notorious Sing Sing penitentiary in Ossining, New York. Warhol embraced the grainy, high-contrast look of the 1963 press photo, which was printed for easy legibility and wide dissemination. In Little Electric Chair, Warhol ups the contrast to spectacular effect to highlight the unoccupied chair, while in the corners of the empty room the spectre of dark shadows hover like storm clouds gathering on the horizon. A portentous sense of foreboding is heightened in this ominous portrayal, in which Warhol creates an atmosphere of anxiety and dread with a remarkable economy of means. Painted in 1964, Warhol’s Little Electric Chair is a poignant and provocative work, the quintessential image from the Death and Disaster series, and one of the most lasting, resonant images of the artist’s oeuvre.
Throughout the artist's career, the spectre of death loomed over Warhol’s art, whether blatant and overt, as in the grisly depictions of car crashes or suicides, or merely hinted at, as in the Marilyn and Liz series, where it lurked beneath the surface of his otherwise beatific Pop paintings. It is only natural, then, that Warhol would begin the Death and Disaster series in the summer of 1962 after seeing the June 4, 1962 edition of the New-York Mirror. Its headline read: “129 Die in Jet” and the burnt-out wreckage of a crashed airplane was splashed across its front page. Over the next two years, Warhol created a revolutionary series of paintings that would come to be known as the Death and Disaster series, whose source imagery was culled from the pages of tabloid newspapers, Life magazine and the crime photos given to him by a local policeman. The paintings depict what Walter Hopps referred to as “commonplace catastrophe” that happened on a daily basis in post-War America, the sort-of unseen tragedies that evoked the violence and grim prospect of war despite their taking place in suburban (or urban) America.
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” (P. Brophy, “Die Warhol Die,” Andy Warhol, exh. cat., Queensland Art Gallery, 2007, p. 73). Indeed, Warhol considered the electric chair “a particularly American way to go,” and his Little Electric Chair is an especially sinister image that hints at the seedy underbelly of American life. Ironically, at the time the work was created in 1964, the electric chair had been recently outlawed in the state of New York, having become a subject of controversy that was widely reported in the news. Its last two executions took place in the Sing Sing State Penitentiary on March 21 and August 15 of 1963, in the executions of Frederick Charles Wood and Eddie Lee Mays.
Rendered in black silkscreen ink upon a background of cool, blue acrylic, Warhol’s Little Electric Chair is a somber reminder of execution process. Warhol’s brilliant use of a bloodless, bodiless blue works in tandem with the perspectival distancing of the original source image; the walls appear to rapidly recede into the distance, the boxlike depiction of the empty room growing larger and larger.
One of the most profound aspects of Warhol’s Little Electric Chair is not the grisly violence it evokes, but rather the overwhelming beauty and keen sense of pathos that is conveyed through the artist’s depiction.
In an elegant reverie that borders on the sublime, Warhol creates a strange world awash in blue, a dream-like place of beauty completely antithetical to its subject. Warhol’s blue acquires a transcendent, celestial quality, as it evokes the wild blue skies and cool breezes of the Elysian fields, which Homer’s Odyssey so presciently described: “where life is easiest for men. No snow is there, nor heavy storm, nor ever rain, but ever does Ocean send up blasts of the shrill-blowing West Wind that they may give cooling to men.” (Homer, The Odyssey, 4.560–565; A.T. Murray, Homer, The Odyssey with an English Translation, Harvard University Press, 1919, Perseus Digital Library Project, Cambridge, MA.) In his depiction of the empty chair, might Warhol imply that the condemned has simply vanished, disappeared into the ether, or crossed over to the other side? It certainly implies a transcendental quality, which echoes Warhol’s own desire to disappear upon dying: “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).
The Little Electric Chair has been described as “the most iconic image” in the Death and Disaster series by the preeminent Warhol scholar Neil Printz and its cruel elegance does strike at the heart of its viewers by its visual reminder of the inevitability of death. As such it remains one of the most unforgettable icons of twentieth century art.