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Little Electric Chair
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Little Electric Chair
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About the item

A hauntingly surreal and scintillating exposition of the anxiety that lurks beneath America’s exterior, Little Electric Chair from 1964-65 exemplifies Andy Warhol’s most affecting deployment of Pop Art idioms to uncover the disturbing shadows amidst the Technicolor 60s. Exceptional for its remarkably crisp image, the extraordinary screen of the present work conspicuously articulates every area of the picture, ushering to the surface impressive details that are oft concealed behind dominant black regions of other Little Electric Chairs. Not only does the iconic ‘SILENCE’ sign hover over the image in perfectly legible form, but close observation rewards the eye with such subtle elements as the precisely delineated architectural arches receding through the doorway to the left and the sharply rendered restraining straps dangling from the arms of the chair. The present work is one of only two examples from the series executed in fluorescent paint, lending it a unique chromatic resonance among the group of 42 Little Electric Chairs. Warhol only began using Day-Glo fluorescent paints in 1964, first employing the intense phosphorescent colors with several of the 24-inch Flowers produced during October and November of that year. Humming with menace, the brilliant, surreal fluorescence of the painting buzzes with the precise moment of electrocution, metaphorically vibrating with the terrifying flash of death at the instant of its arrival. The coalescence of an outstandingly clear silkscreen and one of Warhol’s more daring, electrifying colors renders the present work a masterpiece from the series—truly radiating with palpable drama from every pore of its surface. The present work is also notable for its exceptional provenance, having been once owned by Fred Mueller, an early partner of Arne and Milly Glimcher when they moved Pace Gallery from Boston to New York in 1963. An avid collector and fixture in the New York art world of the 1960s, Mueller also owned Warhol's 1964 Shot Sage Blue Marilyn, a painting that also belonged to Leon Kraushar and S.I. Newhouse. The present work is one of 32 Little Electric Chairs that Warhol executed and exhibited together for the first time at Jerrold Morris Gallery in Toronto in 1965. Hung together all on the same wall with only a small interval of space between each canvas, the paintings appeared as a mosaic of units akin to the tesserae wall of 24-inch Flowers famously exhibited at Leo Castelli in 1964. Unlike the 30 Jackies that were displayed with their edges abutted side-by-side on an adjoining wall at Jerrold Morris, the Little Electric Chairs conveyed the seriality integral to Warhol’s conceptual enterprise without appearing as one mural—each painted in a different jarring confectionery color, every Little Electric Chair retained its own distinctive presence and sensational wall power. As Gerard Malanga recalled of the exhibition, “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.\nInitiated 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 Little 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 with mortality that permeates Warhol’s best pictures.\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 garish 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. Eliciting the room’s harsh fluorescent lighting, the Day-Glo surface of Little Electric Chair awakens every sensory nerve in the viewer. 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. 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.\nLittle Electric Chair’s phantasmagoria of color calls to mind the painting of Francis Bacon, whose most riveting canvases amalgamate carnal 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 also expose the harlequin masking the macabre lurking beneath, Warhol instrumentally deployed a similarly brazen spectrum to highlight the existential malaise of living in the media-saturated climate of 1960s America.\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. Emulating the raw power of the Silver Car Crash (Double Disaster) from 1963, 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, celebrity, tragedy and the absurdity of human transience inhabit the very being of this breathtaking painting, a treatise on the emotional conditioning of our time.\nSigned and dated 64 on the overlap
US
NY, US
US

medium

Fluorescent paint and silkscreen ink on canvas

creator

Andy Warhol

condition

This work is in excellent, untouched condition. Please contact the Contemporary Art department at 212-606-7254 for the condition report prepared by Terrence Mahon. The canvas is framed in a metal strip frame. 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

Toronto, Jerrold Morris International Gallery Limited, Andy Warhol, March - April 1965 New York, Stellan Holm Gallery, Andy Warhol: Little Electric Chair Paintings, May 2001, p. 14, illustrated in color

literature

Rainer Crone, Andy Warhol, New York, 1970, cat. no. 356 Rainer Crone, Das Bildnerische Werk Andy Warhols, Berlin, 1976, cat. no. 672 Georg Frei and Neil Printz, eds., The Andy Warhol Catalogue Raisonné: Paintings and Sculptures, 1964-1969, Vol. 02A, New York, 2004, cat. no. 1437, p. 368, illustrated in color and p. 378 (text)

provenance

Leo Castelli Gallery, New York (LC #281) Fred Mueller, New York and Honolulu Stellan Holm, New York Luhring Augustine, New York Acquired by the present owner from the above in 1999

signedDate

Signed and dated 64 on the overlap

consignmentDesignation

Property of a Private Collection

creator_nationality_dates

1928 - 1987





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