Nowhere else in Andy Warhol’s prodigious output does he more affectingly capture the metaphysical terror of living in the Technicolor Sixties than in Big Electric Chair. For the artist who singlehandedly defined the intense prismatic palette of Pop art, Big Electric Chair from 1967-1968 embodies the most daring and sophisticated deployment of color across all of Warhol’s most critically lauded Death and Disaster paintings. Exceptionally rare, it is one of only fourteen large-format depictions of the subject, of which the majority reside in major international collections such as the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, the Moderna Museet in Stockholm, the Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin, and the Menil Collection in Houston. The present work is the sole Big Electric Chair that saw Warhol divide the canvas into three discrete fields of uniform color and silkscreen the surface twice—once in a dark purple and subsequently in a velvet green. The paintings that Warhol previously executed in 1963 and 1965 depicting the same electric chair were strictly black-ink silkscreens on monochromatic grounds, either on much smaller canvases or serially repeated in the same image. Emphasizing its inimitable singularity, not only were the Big Electric Chairs the largest isolated iterations of the subject, but none aside from the present work saw Warhol segment the image into more than two oblique zones of color. Its polychromatic, high-key tonality without doubt renders it the most compositionally complex of all Electric Chairs.
A delirium of Fauvist colors spill across the tripartite surface, juxtaposing the vacant sobriety of the image with a vertiginous ecstasy of chromatic drama. The sequence of cobalt blue, acid-green and violet is paradigmatic of Warhol’s most powerful treatment of color, magnifying the nightmare of the image and its potent resonance. The 1967 Big Electric Chairs are further distinguished from earlier examples by their heightened immediacy—Warhol cropped the original source photograph to foreground the electric chair and eliminate the atmospheric emptiness of the background, pressing the chair closer to the viewer. Unlike any of Warhol’s other Death and Disaster paintings, the present work positions us within the center of its horror, implicating us as both spectators and potential victims. Meanwhile, Warhol’s doubling of the silkscreen within the same image creates a distinct off-register effect that haunts the picture, a heightened contouring that the artist attempted with only four of the fourteen Big Electric Chairs. The image portentously buzzes, a blurry irradiation whose shadows provide a sense of three-dimensional space to invite the viewer into its reality, emphasized by the cord spiraling toward us at the bottom left of the canvas. Much of the scholarship surrounding the Electric Chairs points to the potentiality of the image and the chair’s ominous invitation. However, the aggressive instantaneity of the present work’s color palette seems to transport us into the present moment of electrocution, metaphorically vibrating with the terrifying flash of death at the instant of its arrival.
Invented at the end of the Nineteenth Century by Harold P. Brown and Arthur Kennelly, employees of Thomas Edison, the electric chair was the United States’ answer to finding a method of capital punishment to replace hanging. Strapped firmly to a wooden chair and attached to numerous electrodes, the condemned would be subjected to a rapid sequence of alternating currents—cycles varying in voltage and duration surged through their body, inducing fatal damage to the internal organs until the heart stopped and they could be pronounced dead. In its linear geometric progression, Big Electric Chair’s three skewed bands of color chromatically simulate the sequential detonation of the alternating current—each strip presses against the next, a tectonic whirl of color that pictorially renders the pulsing terror of the precise, serial jolts of electricity. This staggering effect exemplifies Warhol’s ability to operate within the palette of Pop, but expand the potential of color beyond the stasis of attraction toward a uniquely expressive sensation of motion. The virulent chromatic brutality impels the viewer to realize their own moral distance from the image, emphasizing and unveiling our desensitization to media violence. In a rare interview with Gene Swenson published by Art News in November 1963, Warhol said, “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. But when you see a gruesome picture over and over again, it doesn’t really have any effect.” (the artist cited in Art News, November 1963)
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 toward critical gravitas. It was around this time, immediately following Marilyn Monroe’s tragic suicide in August 1962, that Warhol also began silkscreening images of the iconic leading lady. Rendering her visage in a panoply of electric Pop hues hauntingly mummified her celebrity, a shocking dissonance between death and exuberant excess that is echoed in Big Electric Chair. Douglas Fogle wrote, “Our fascination with the beauty and glamour of celebrities seems to have an inevitable flip side, which is our deep-seated obsession with tragedy and death.” (Douglas Fogle, “Spectators at Our Own Deaths” in Exh. Cat., Minneapolis, Walker Art Center (and travelling), Supernova: Stars, Deaths, and Disasters 1962-1964, 2006, p. 13) It is precisely this leitmotif of the uncanny juxtaposition between intoxicating bubblegum pop and mortality that permeates Warhol’s best pictures.
Just as Warhol challenged our threatening voyeuristic impulses with his subversive depictions of celebrity, Big Electric Chair interrogates the moral psychoses of the mass media, as the candy-colored panorama of the canvas appealingly invokes the public’s voracious consumption of death on-screen. Warhol used as his source for the original silkscreen a 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 by the press 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 demonstrates death as it is propped up for the public’s viewing, our alternating emotional index oscillating between fear and an insatiable fervor, reminiscent of the crowds that would gather for public hangings.
Big Electric Chair’s phantasmagoria of color calls to mind the painting of Francis Bacon, whose most riveting canvases amalgamate the carnal horrors of disfigurement and profound psychological unrest with harrowingly bright hues. Michel Leiris wrote that Bacon’s paintings convey a modern mental state previously referred to as “le mal du siècle—the ardent awareness of being a presence permeable to all the charms of a world not notable, however, for its kindness, and the icy uncertainty that we are no more than this, have no real power, and are what we are only for a ridiculously limited time… he cannot do other than show the appalling dark side of life, which is the reverse of its bright surface.” (Michel Leiris, Francis Bacon: Full Face and In Profile, 1983, pp. 45-6) If Bacon’s colors served not only to inflate the surreal unease of his pictures, but expose the harlequin masking the macabre lurking beneath, Warhol instrumentally deploys a similarly brazen spectrum to highlight the existential malaise of living in the media-saturated climate of 1960s America.
Among the car crashes, suicides, and race riots, Neil Printz declared, “The Electric Chair, with its near-frontality and unchanging recurrence, is the most iconic of Warhol’s Death and Disaster images.” (Neil Printz in Exh. Cat., Houston, The Menil Collection, Andy Warhol: Death and Disasters, 1989, p. 16) A uniquely American industrial invention capable of mechanizing death, the electric chair encompasses Warhol’s overarching enthrallment with the relationship between technological reproducibility and mortality. Emulating the raw power of the Silver Car Crash (Double Disaster) from 1963, Big 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 moment in American history, yet is timeless in the unsettling dread that it bares derived from our very own making. In keeping with his very best work, celebrity, tragedy and the absurdity of human transience inhabit every pore of this breathtaking painting, a treatise on the emotional conditioning of our time.
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