Lot 103
  • 103

Andy Warhol

30,000 - 50,000 GBP
109,250 GBP
bidding is closed


  • Andy Warhol
  • Electric chairs
  • Each signed in ballpoint pen, from the edition of 250 
  • Screenprints
each: signed, dated 71 and numbered 19/250 on the reverse

the complete set of ten colour screenprints



Frayda Feldman & Jörg Schellmann, Andy Warhol Prints: A Catalogue
Raisonné 1962 - 1987
, New York 2003, pp. 78-79, no. II 74-83, illustration of another example in colour

Catalogue Note

"I was...painting the Marilyns. I realised that everything I was doing must have been Death. It was Christmas or Labour 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."

Andy Warhol in conversation with Gene Swenson, Art News, New York November 1963, cited in: Harrison and Wood, Art in Theory 1900-1990, 1992, p. 732

The image source for this set was a photograph first published in 1953 to accompany an article about the planned execution of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, an American communist couple. They were convicted for conspiracy to commit espionage and divulging information about the atomic bomb to the Soviet Union. On 19 June 1953, the Rosenbergs were executed at the New York State-run Sing Sing Correctional Facility in the electric chair illustrated here. This was the first execution of any civilian accused of espionage in American history and became the cause of heated debate.

Uniquely American, the electric chair was invented in 1889 and first used in 1890 to execute William Kemmler, a man convicted of murdering his wife with an axe. It was outlawed in New York in 1963, when the chair pictured here, was used for the final time in Sing Sing Prison. A number of American states, however, maintained the chair as a preferred method of execution that today may be chosen over lethal injection at the request of the prisoner.  

Warhol's use of the chair was highly controversial when he produced this image and the fact that such an infamous story was born from this particular image must have made it all the more interesting as a source for Warhol. He had always been obsessed by death, immortalising icons such as Marilyn Monroe and Jackie Kennedy, who had either died or been confronted by death at a young age. As such, the electric chair - the killing machine - perfectly resonates with the series of Death and Disaster which Warhol commenced in 1962. Together with his depiction of tragedies, car crashes and suicides, Warhol's fascination with mortality is powerfully demonstrated.

In Electric Chairs, the chair is empty and any human element is absent from the picture. But the emptiness of the chair almost demands and awaits a sitter which only the viewer can envisage and provide. It simultaneously creates a sense of imminence, as though the victims are waiting outside the room. There are many possible occupants and although they are not directly represented, the violence of the image is strongly implied in the spectator's imagination. The minimal vacancy of the image is profoundly disturbing and forces the viewer to contemplate a series of existential questions about crime and punishment, life and death. 

In the 1953 photograph on which this series is based, more of the room is visible. However, in the set of screenprints, Warhol chose to focus on the chair, leaving the background almost blank with only a few shadows. The absence of a clear narrative or context diminishes the object's significance.

Warhol created different combinations of colours to produce varying levels of visual intensity. The combination of colours chosen disrupts the menacing atmosphere that the death chamber usually invokes. While the colours and repetitive character of the publicised image make the electric chair almost decorative, the chair is symbolically charged with force and menace. It numbs the spectator, making the deaths seem mass-produced and banal.

It is not known whether Warhol felt strongly about the controversial issue of the death penalty but with the creation of this set he undoubtedly questioned values at the very heart of 1960s and 1970s American society. Although only used in America, the electric chair has become a worldwide recognisable symbol of the legalised death penalty. It remains a topic that is still relevant and controversial today.