Toni Clayton, American Pop & Modern Specialist
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Born out of his Death And Disaster series, Electric Chair speaks to Warhol's fascination with the images spread by mass media. Within this seminal series, Warhol repeated popular images to show how print culture can diminish the seriousness of the news being captured.
First represented in 1964, Warhol was clearly fascinated with the Electric Chair for a long period in his career. Seven years later, Warhol returned to the haunting subject to create this limited series of 10 screenprints.
The image that characterises the Electric Chair series was the original press photograph from the documentation of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg's execution. Convicted and sentenced to death for spying on behalf of the Soviet Union, the Rosenberg's high profile execution was at the fore of mass media when Warhol appropriated the image in true Pop style.
Electric Chair is quite the departure from Warhol's bright and glamorous portraits of celebrities. Despite his use of bright colour in some of the prints in this series, Warhol's Electric Chair prints are distinctly eerie. With atmospheric lighting and a largely empty composition, Warhol transformed the simple scene of the electric chair into one which was loaded with violent potential.
With his over-saturation and repetition of this mass-circulated image, Warhol emphasised the media's role in trivialising cataclysmic events. This was the sole purpose of the Death And Disaster series, of which Warhol himself remarked: "The more you look at the same exact thing, the more the meaning goes away, and the better and emptier you feel."
Shortly before Warhol made his first Electric Chair print, the last execution by electric chair was performed in New York. In certain US states, however, the chair is still used to send convicted criminals to death today.
Particularly in Electric Chair (F. & S. II.81), Warhol's application of coloured paint charges the execution room with a macabre energy. A sweep of light rises from the bottom of the chair towards the top right of the composition, like a spirit escaping the torturous tool of execution.
By printing his Electric Chair over and over again, it seems that even Warhol became desensitised to the violent potential of the chair. In true Pop fashion, Warhol's practice therefore mimics the unsentimental nature of mass media.
By immortalising what would have been considered 'low' popular culture into a work of art, Electric Chair embodies the ethos of Pop and Warhol's leading position in the movement. Today, the series appears like a time capsule, and a poignant reminder of the media's ever-present role in our lives.