Jay Johnson and Tom Cashin, New York
Thomas Ammann Fine Art AG, Zurich
Acquired directly from the above by the present owner in 2010
Heiner Bastian quoted in: Exhibition Catalogue, London, Tate Modern, Andy Warhol: Retrospective, 2002, pp. 28-29.
An image of eerie luminosity and profound verisimilitude, Little Electric Chair is both compelling and highly confrontational. Created in 1964, the work is an exceptional example of the artist’s Death and Disaster series, a seminal canon in Andy Warhol’s iconic career and one of the most revolutionary projects undertaken by any artist during the radical artistic experimentation of the 1960s. As pointed out by Heiner Bastian: “Whatever the many different conclusions arrived at in art-historical observations on the significance of Warhol’s work in the context of his time and his contemporaries, it is the images of disaster and death that he started to make in 1963 that Warhol the chronicler gains his credibility and Warhol the artist explains the world” (Heiner Bastian in: Exhibition Catalogue, London, Tate Modern, Andy Warhol: Retrospective, 2002, pp. 28-29). One of a series of 42 works, seven of which are now included in major museum collections, such as the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Menil Museum, Houston, the present work boasts an entirely unique provenance, having been in the private collection of Andy Warhol’s long term partner Jed Johnson until his premature death in 1996. Johnson became Warhol’s lover of twelve years after a chance meeting at the Factory in 1968 and the tragedy of his untimely death in a plane crash off the coast of Long Island, New York, is inadvertently linked to the sinister subject of the present work.
An austere, solitary chair stands in the centre of the sombre chamber. Bathed in a bright light all other details of the room are swallowed up by the jet-black shadows that surround it. Unlike other works from the series, in which single layers of vibrant colours scintillate from underneath the black screen, an arresting chiaroscuro effect pervades the present work. As the room emanates a compelling stillness, the extreme dark and light polarities intensify the powerful emotions prompted by the subject. A haunting sense of emptiness permeates the image. Quiet and apprehensive, the vacant chair invokes an ominous invitation that places the viewer at the centre of the horrifying scene. Luring us from our place as spectator to that of the condemned, the image creates a disquieting destabilisation of the spectator's objective distance.
Consumed by the contemporary media frenzy of the 1960s Warhol was continually engrossed in tabloids, magazines and newspapers. Feeding on the sensationalised realities created by newscasters the artist was animated by the paradox that lay at the centre of American life, exploring both the glamour of Western consumerism and celebrity stardoms, as well as the gloomier underbelly of society. As demonstrated in his portraits of icons such as Marilyn Monroe and Jackie Kennedy, whose personal tragedies had been brazenly headlined in the media of the early 1960s (Monroe committed suicide in 1962 and Kennedy was grieving for her assassinated husband), the two polarities of life and death were inextricably linked, one gaining emotional and aesthetic strength from the other. However, in no other works are the effects of society's voyeuristic obsessions and ferocious overload of sensationalised imagery so profoundly outlined as in his Death and Disaster series. As explained by Walter Hopps: “The explicitness of death and societal disaster in Warhol’s work avoids the generic, the paraphernalia of allegory or sentimental genre. With an eye for the eccentricity of an individual event, Warhol’s paintings capture the unpredictable choreography of death” (Walter Hopps in: Exhibition Catalogue, Houston, The Menil Collection, Andy Warhol Death and Disaster, 1988-89, p. 9). With a gripping actuality and forceful immediacy the works evoke the raw humanism of these disturbing scenes of disaster. However the viewer’s sense of detachment remains, placing the public’s desensitisation to images of violence and death at the forefront of these works.
In the image of the electric chair the vehement full-frame shots that characterised the images of car crashes and race riots are contrasted by a static scene taken from a press image of the execution chamber at the Sing Sing Penitentiary, New York. Having first been published in 1953 alongside an article about the execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who had been charged with alleged espionage for the Soviet Union, the event and narrative looms over the photograph without being directly shown.Where this quietly sombre image presents death orchestrated for public viewing, the Cold War conflicts of the 1960s resonate from the subject. In August 1963, a decade after the image had initially been published, the state of New York authorised the last execution in the chamber, sparking renewed media coverage and generating debates on the controversial subjects of capital punishment and state power. The high contrast of the factual press photography was reflected in Warhol’s newly developed stylised mechanical reproductions. Just as Warhol advocated the importance of the machine over the human hand in painting, so the electric chair had created a colder, more impersonal form of execution that essentially removed the human from the gruesome role of executioner.
As a forbearer of the ground breaking Pop Art movement in the United States, Warhol’s flashy imageries of cult icons and mass production tend to overshadow the deeper social investigation of his exceptional oeuvre. By exposing the political connotations imbedded in mass imagery and the moral controversies underlying our media-saturated age, Warhol introduced a profound conceptual meaning to the Pop Art vernacular. Separating himself from his contemporaries, many of whom continued to focus on the aesthetics of popular culture, he became one of the most insightful chroniclers of the Twentieth Century.
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