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Little Electric Chair
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Little Electric Chair
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About the item

Glowing portentously with a garishly macabre proposition of terror, Andy Warhol’s Little Electric Chair from 1964-65 illuminates a hauntingly surreal and scintillating exposition of the anxiety that lurks beneath America’s exterior. Little Electric Chair exemplifies Andy Warhol’s most affecting deployment of Pop Art idioms to uncover the disturbing shadows amidst the Technicolor 60s. Executed in an alluring simmering orange red hue that augments the chilling fear of the image, the present work is a brilliant example from one of Warhol’s most compelling series. Humming with menace, the surreal glow of the painting buzzes with the precise moment of electrocution, metaphorically vibrating with the terrifying flash of death at the instant of its arrival. It is precisely this leitmotif of the uncanny juxtaposition between intoxicating bubblegum pop with mortality that permeates Warhol’s best pictures. When Warhol exhibited his Little Electric Chairs for the first time at Jerrold Morris Gallery in Toronto in 1965, Gerard Malanga recalled, “Imagine, the premiere of Andy’s Electric Chair paintings in Toronto! Each painting seemed identical yet no two were really alike. Every color imaginable. I remembered then, while slowly looking at them, Andy’s remark how adding pretty colors to a picture as gruesome as this would change people’s perceptions of acceptance. Suddenly the space of the room cancels everything else out. The chair is no longer a weapon and it’s not the chair anymore.” (Gerard Malanga, "Electric Chairs on Display in Toronto for First Time!", Andy Warhol: Little Electric Chair Paintings, New York, 2001, p. 8) 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.\nJust as Warhol challenged our voyeuristic impulses with his subversive depictions of celebrity, Little Electric Chair interrogates the moral psychoses of the mass media, as the candy-colored fluorescence of the canvas appealingly invokes 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 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 demonstrated death as it is propped up for the public’s viewing, our alternating emotional index oscillating between fear and an insatiable morbid fascination, reminiscent of the crowds that would gather for public hangings. Warhol inaugurated the Electric Chairs in 1963, the same year that the chair at Sing Sing was used for the last time in the executions of Frederick Charles Wood on March 21 and Eddie Lee Mays on August 15. When Warhol painted the first Electric Chair in January and February of 1963, the image bore a startling potentiality, however, after the last execution at Sing Sing and the repealing of capital punishment in New York State in 1965, the desolation of the image signaled a permanent vacancy. 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 firsthand. 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. The compelling complexity of Andy Warhol’s project is laid bare by the present work, an image whose semantic associations are in perpetual flux dependent upon social context—what does not change, however, is the immediate power conjured by the picture and its dazzling hue, a grisly delirium that induces a fundamentally human emotional response.\nInvented 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; New York State was the first to adopt the invention. 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. The screen of Little Electric Chair portentously buzzes, an 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. The chromatic intensity impels the viewer to realize their own moral distance from the image, emphasizing and unveiling our desensitization to media violence. In a rare interview by 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.” (Andy Warhol cited in Art News, November 1963) Heightening our awareness of a diminished emotional responsiveness to such images, and jolting us back into a state of mental shock, Warhol’s ultimate achievement is his ability to both revel in the concomitant abundance and futility of images while re-investing them with serious potency.\nAmong 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. Paralleling the raw power of Warhol's other famed Death and Disaster series - Suicides, Car Crashes, The Atomic Bomb - 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, the absurdity of human transience is brilliantly encapsulated within this breathtaking painting, a treatise on the emotional conditioning of our time.
US
NY, US
US

medium

Acrylic and silkscreen ink on canvas

creator

Andy Warhol

condition

Please contact the Contemporary Art department at 212-606-7254 for the condition report prepared by Terrence Mahon. This canvas is framed in a wood strip frame with a metallic finish and a small float. In response to your inquiry, we are pleased to provide you with a general report of the condition of the property described above. Since we are not professional conservators or restorers, we urge you to consult with a restorer or conservator of your choice who will be better able to provide a detailed, professional report. Prospective buyers should inspect each lot to satisfy themselves as to condition and must understand that any statement made by Sotheby's is merely a subjective qualified opinion. NOTWITHSTANDING THIS REPORT OR ANY DISCUSSIONS CONCERNING CONDITION OF A LOT, ALL LOTS ARE OFFERED AND SOLD "AS IS" IN ACCORDANCE WITH THE CONDITIONS OF SALE PRINTED IN THE CATALOGUE.

dimensions

22 x 28 in. 55.9 x 71.1 cm.

exhibition

Tokyo, Daimaru Department Store; Daimaru, Kobe, Andy Warhol, October - November 1974, cat. no. 22, illustrated in color New York, Stellan Holm Gallery, Andy Warhol: Little Electric Chair Paintings, May 2001, pl. 23, p. 35, illustrated in color London, Serpentine Gallery, In the Darkest Hour There May Be Light: Works from Damien Hirst's murderme collection, November 2006 - January 2007, n.p., illustrated in color

literature

Georg Frei and Neil Printz, eds., The Andy Warhol Catalogue Raisonné: Paintings and Sculptures, Volume 02A, 1964-1969, New York, 2004, cat. no. 1463, p. 376, illustrated in color

provenance

The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc., New York Gagosian Gallery, New York Acquired by the present owner from the above in 2007

creator_nationality_dates

1928 - 1987


*Note: The price is not recalculated to the current value. It refers to the actual final price at the time the item was sold.

*Note: The price is not recalculated to the current value. It refers to the actual final price at the time the item was sold.


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