Andy Warhol’s Big Electric Chair is a large-scale version of one of the artist’s most striking images. At over six feet across, it is almost twice as big as the artist’s earlier series of Little Electric Chairs, and by isolating his subject matter and rendering it in a trifecta of striking colors, Warhol takes his smaller, monochrome canvases in a chilling new direction. Painted in 1967-68, the present work is part of a series of Electric Chair paintings which the artist produced for his first survey of works in Europe, an exhibition organized by the Moderna Museet in Stockholm. Installed in a grid of four across by three down, the effect of viewing these canvases on the wall had a tremendous impact on the viewing public. Of the 14 canvases that Warhol produced, 10 are now in major museum collections including the Art Institute of Chicago; the Musée National dart Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris; the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, and the Menil Collection in Houston.
Across this substantial canvas, the singular image of an electric chair is enveloped in three broad bands of bold color. Unlike his earlier Little Electric Chairs, in this work Warhol focuses solely on the chair itself, cropping out the chamber in which it is located together with all the associated trappings. Gone are the doors by which the condemned prisoner and prison officials would have entered the room; gone are the spartan overhead light fixtures that illuminated the scene in chilling detail; and gone is the sign over one of the doors that intoned SILENCE. What we are left with is simply the chair itself, together with the cable that connected it to the power supply. Rendered in phthalo blue, two contrasting shades of green and a shocking pink, this Big Electric Chair marks the most daring use of color across all of Warhol’s critically acclaimed Death and Disaster series. It is also the only work that Warhol divided into three sections, laying down three diagonal stipes of blue, green and pink ground. On top of this, he screens the image of the electric chair twice—once in a dark purple and once in a shadowy army green. By rendering the subject twice, Warhol achieves an unsettling sense of depth and three-dimensionality, as if the chair is almost melting away before our eyes.
By cropping out all of the superfluous elements of his earlier Little Electric Chairs, Warhol foregrounds the haunting image of the chair itself. Like the ubiquitous subject matter of his earlier Coca-Cola Bottles, the chair—in and of itself—is a relatively ordinary and mundane object. However, Warhol builds on the idea of the empty chair that 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. 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 so doing, this “empty” painting asks a series of difficult existential questions about crime and punishment and the nature and humanity of violence, mortality and death.
When Warhol first unveiled his Little Electric Chairs, it was—arguably—the most shocking subject in postwar art. The source image 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 an inadequate amount of evidence (itself tainted by the nature of the sources), the Rosenbergs were sentenced to death in the midst of a 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 increasing 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, Warhol’s Electric Chairs must have come as a shock to a public who thought they knew what to expect from the master of Pop Art. 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 Electric Chair canvases 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 a grand tradition 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).
Big Electric Chair was part of a series of paintings conceived for Warhol’s first ever survey in Europe, organized by the Moderna Museet in Stockholm, Sweden. Unlike the artist’s prior retrospectives in Philadelphia in 1965, and Boston in 1966, this show was planned as an alternative to a conventional retrospective exhibition, and was designed to explore the relationship between Warhol’s paintings and his films. Warhol made two new bodies of work for the show, both based on some of his previous paintings, his Electric Chairs and Flowers, except that here, he enlarged his previous screens to be projected on to a movie screen alongside the paintings.
In Big Electric Chair, color is paramount. Not just in the three diagonal striations that sweep across the canvas, but also in the choice of colors selected by the artist. While the vast majority of the series are rendered in monochrome against a contrasting ground, the present lot is the only one that is rendered in five colors. And it is not the number of colors, also the choice of colors that is significant. For this particular depiction of the execution chamber, Warhol chose colors normally associated with hope and nature. The deep phthalo blue (the color of the oceans, the sky), the verdant green (the color of trees and plants), and pink (the color of human flesh)—are all colors normally associated with life. Peter Schjeldahl, writing in the New Yorker, is one of the few critics who recall the artist saying that he admired Matisse’s disparate use of color. “Few recall him saying, as he did, that he wanted to be Matisse,” writes the critic. “I think he split the difference between the two wishes, achieving pictorial art that is like the product of a balky Matissean odalisque, in thrall to ‘luxe, calme et volupté.’ Warhol was a supreme colorist who redid the world’s palette in tart, amazing hues…” (P. Schjeldahl, “Warhol in Bloom: Putting the Pop Artist in Perspective,” New Yorker, March 3, 2002, via https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2002/03/11/warhol-in-bloom [accessed 10/12/2019]).
In painting his Big Electric Chairs for the Stockholm exhibition, Warhol wanted to return to a program for his first museum exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia in 1965. To help in the planning of the show, he sketched out a preliminary layout with one room labeled “Disasters” and the other “Flowers.” Much as in Stockholm, Warhol wanted this Philadelphia exhibition to represent his body of work in broadly thematic groups to emphasize its continuum and currency. After making their debut appearance in Sweden, these large-scale Electric Chairs did much to establish Warhol’s reputation in Europe. 10 of the 14 canvases are now in major international museum and institutional collections (several of which are in Europe) including the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Nationalgalerie, Collection Marx; Musée National dart Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris; the Froehlich Collection, Stuttgart; and finally, the Moderna Museet, Stockholm.
Andy Warhol’s Death and Disaster paintings, to which Big Electric Chair belongs, was a dramatic change of direction for the artist. Having concentrated predominantly on his portrayals of consumer culture and Hollywood stars (Coca-Cola Bottles and Campbells Soup Cans, 1962, and portraits Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor), in the summer of 1962—at the suggestion of the then curator of American Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Henry Geldzahler—Warhol switched his attention to a much different subject matter. He began with the monumentally-scaled 129 Die in Jet, in which he transferred the image from the June 4, 1962 edition of the New York Mirror by means of an opaque projector, painting by hand. In the massive canvas, the grisly wreckage of the plane’s burned-out wing is writ large, made into an iconic image that conveys the gruesomeness of this particular death. Over the next two years, Warhol created a gripping series of paintings that would come to be known as the Death and Disaster series—suicide victims, the wreckage of smashed up cars, the atomic bomb, civil rights protesters attacked by dogs, people unwittingly poisoned by contaminated tuna-fish, and the electric chair. The paintings present the kind of day-to-day realities of living in post-war America that Walter Hopps refers to as “commonplace catastrophe.” Concurrently, Warhol was at the same time creating the seminal portraits of Marilyn Monroe, which he began just after her suicide on August 5, 1962. In an often quoted interview from this era, Warhol discusses the impetus for the Death and Disaster series. When asked why he started the “Death” series, he responded: “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” (A. Warhol, quoted in Glen Swanson, Interview with Andy Warhol, Artnews). Despite the apparent incongruity, curator Douglas Fogle noted in his catalogue for Supernova: Stars: Death and Disasters exhibition which he organized at the Walker Art Center in 2006 that, “Our fascination with the beauty and glamour of celebrities seems to have an inevitable flipside, which is our deep-seated obsession with tragedy and death” (D. Fogle, “Spectators at Our Own Deaths,” in Supernova: Stars: Death and Disasters, exh. cat., Walker Art Center, 2006, p. 13). Indeed, two of Warhol’s greatest celebrity portraits (those of Elizabeth Taylor and Marilyn Monroe) were painted when both women had their brushes with death.
Unlike many of the other works in his Death and Disaster series, such his Car Crash paintings or Race Riots, Big Electric Chair is exempt from explicit violence; instead it is defined by a stillness, emptiness and silence which sets them apart from these action-filled visions of death. Lacking any sign of human presence, the chair seen here is filled with a chilling sense of foreboding. Spot lit and set just off center, 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.