Andy Warhol’s Electric Chairs portfolio reveals his fascination with tragedy, death and disaster in popular culture – prominent themes seen throughout Warhol’s oeuvre. The set of ten color screenprints depicts an unoccupied electric chair in an empty room, the same chair in his Death and Disasters series’ screenprint Electric Chair, 1964. Drawing inspiration from mass media, Electric Chairs is based on an appropriated 1953 press photograph of New York Sing Sing Prison’s death chamber. The death penalty in America was a popular topic in the 1960s and was banned in 1963.
The Electric Chairs series experimented with color and composition. Warhol’s original 1964 Electric Chair image was cropped to bring the electric chair into the foreground of the picture. Each print in the portfolio was copied and enhanced with different contrasting bold colors, such as pink, yellow and blue. The reproduced electric chair in color transforms a press photograph into chic Pop Art (a practice also seen in Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup and Ads series). The vibrant colors are also reminiscent of media advertisements.
As a Pop Artist, Warhol used mass production techniques and widespread imagery in his Electric Chair series. The commercial process of screenprinting reflects Warhol’s fascination with mechanical reproduction in society. The repeated electric chairs allude to the proliferation of tragic imagery in the media, including news of assassinations, executions, and reports of violent deaths. Disseminated photographs of tragedy stricken celebrities became source material for Warhol’s Marilyn Monroe, Jacqueline Kennedy and Elizabeth Taylor portraits. The Electric Chairs portfolio comments on how the mass circulation of graphic imagery desensitizes the public to violence. In an interview, Warhol stated, “When you see a gruesome picture over and over again, it doesn’t really have an affect.” (G.R. Swenson, ‘“What is Pop Art?” Interviews with Eight Painters,’ Art News, November 1963, p.60-63).
Electric Chair, 1971, is a portfolio of ten screenprints on paper, 35 1/2” x 48” each. The set is an edition of 250 signed ’71 in ball-point pen and numbered with a rubber stamp on verso; some signed in pencil. There are 50 AP numbered in Roman numerals, signed and dated in ball-point pen on verso and stamped AP and numbered with a rubber stamp on verso. The series was published through Bruno Bischofberger, Zurich, Switzerland. Printer: Silkprint Ketter, Zurich, Switzerland.