Philip Johnson, Connecticut
Gian Enzo Sperone, Rome
Private Collection, Turin
Acquired from the above by the present owner in 1993-94
Pasadena, Pasadena Art Museum; Chicago, Museum of Contemporary Art; Eindhoven, Stedelijk van Abbemuseum; Paris, Musée d’Arte Moderne de la Ville de Paris; London, Tate Gallery; and New York, Whitney Museum of American Art, Andy Warhol, 1970-71, n.p., no. 28 (text) (Eindhoven); n.p., no. 68 (text) (Paris); and p. 96, no. 112 (text) (London)
Rainer Crone, Das Bildnerische Werk Andy Warhols, Berlin 1976, p. 362, no. 658 (text)
Georg Frei and Neil Printz, Eds., The Andy Warhol Catalogue Raisonné: Paintings and Sculptures, Volume 02A, 1964-1969, New York 2004, p. 365, no. 1433, illustrated in colour
The present work is one of 32 Little Electric Chairs that Warhol executed and exhibited together for the first time at Jerrold Morris Gallery in Toronto in 1965. Hung together all on the same wall with only a small interval of space between each canvas, the paintings appeared as a mosaic of units akin to the tesserae wall of 24-inch Flowers famously exhibited at Leo Castelli in 1964. On an adjoining wall Warhol exhibited 30 of his legendary Jackie canvases, created shortly following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, and themselves constituting a poignantly insightful commentary on the prevalence of death and disaster in modern life. Unlike these Jackie works, however, Warhol’s 32 Little Electric Chair canvases were each screened against the background of a distinct confectionary hue. The exhibition of these works wholly and perfectly conveyed the seriality integral to Warhol’s conceptual enterprise; set against the kaleidoscopic array of sister paintings, the present work, in its stark monochromatic elegance, undoubtedly retained its own distinctive presence and sensational wall power. Accentuating their momentous historical significance, nine of these Little Electric Chair paintings belong to eminent museum collections, including the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Yale University Art Gallery, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and the Menil Collection, Houston.
Initiated in 1962 at Henry Geldzahler’s encouragement to put aside representations of consumer culture and engage with more serious subject matter, Warhol’s Death and Disaster series propelled the artist beyond celebrity and towards critical gravitas. Just as Warhol had challenged our voyeuristic impulses with his subversive depictions of celebrity, Little Electric Chair interrogates the moral psychoses of the mass media, immediately invoking the public’s voracious consumption of death onscreen. Warhol used as his source for the original silkscreen a wire service photograph of the chair at Sing Sing penitentiary in Ossining, New York, an industrial vehicle of ritual killing that executed 614 individuals between 1891 and 1963. This photograph was published on June 19, 1953 – the day that Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were put to death at Sing Sing after being convicted of spying for the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War, allegedly smuggling information to the Russians pertaining to the atomic bomb. Warhol’s source photograph demonstrated death as it is propped up for the public’s viewing, our alternating emotional index oscillating between fear and an insatiable morbid fascination. Of all of Warhol’s critically lauded Death and Disaster paintings, the Electric Chairs are the only paintings that don’t in fact show the death or the disaster; the terror happens off-screen. The violence is absent and only implied, leaving the viewer to feel only the shock rather than see it first hand. In many ways, the imagination has the capacity to inflict a worse horror than simply witnessing the execution: with the ambiguity of death that Warhol’s image allows, looking at it we occupy the role of both voyeur and participant, the executioner and the executed. Little Electric Chair sees man become the orchestrator of his own demise through his invention of this killing machine – Warhol spins a circuitous parable of birth and death that marks a particular, yet timeless, moment in American history. In keeping with Warhol's very best work, celebrity, tragedy, and the absurdity of human transience inhabit the very being of this breathtaking painting, a treatise on the emotional conditioning of our time.
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