Sunday, 10 May 2009

Andy Warhol

Big Electric Chair, 1967
Silkscreen on primed canvas 137 x 185cm

Tate Modern, London
February 2002

In his 1863 essay “The Painter of Modern Life” Charles Baudelaire described such an artist as one who would fuse photography with painting to capture the transience of modern life. The first painter to rise to this challenge was Edouard Manet, and he is often cited as the first Modernist Painter. Those that came afterwards were free to choose what to paint, but Manet was the first to break with the old order of painting that decided what to paint and how it would be painted. Warhol is a true follower of Baudelaire’s ideas. Creating paintings that captured the fast changing landscape of the 1960’s and doing them using a mechanical means, the screenprint.

Seeing a large exhibition of Warhol’s work for the first time at the Tate Modern I was struck by just how varied the apparent subjects of his work were, but then realised that the true subject was life in America. So many of the images were familar to me individually, but collectively they told the story of a period in American history that I only knew through film and television. The consumerism of the Coke bottles and 32 Campbell's Soup Cans of 1962, the trauma and tragedy in the portraits of Jacqueline Kennedy, the fascination with celebrity in the portraits of Elizabeth Taylor and Marylin Monroe, and the darkness of his 1963/4 “Death and Disaster” series. The second half of the show included the hallucinogenically coloured Cow Wallpaper and Flower paintings and cuminated with the skulls and collaborations with Jean-Michel Basquiat.

The painting I have chosen is a 1967 reworking of an image from the “Death and Disaster” series. The original photograph Warhol used is of the empty execution chamber in the Sing Sing state penitentiary where the last executions by electric chair in New York State took place. The early image is a repeated series of fifteen images based on the full photograph. All the details of the photograph are visible in the early images, but the quantity of dark ink increases with the print run, steadily obliterating the sign requesting “silence” perhaps signifying a temporal meditation on death.

Although the later piece crops the setting out, it seems more disconcerting. This might be connected to the introduction of the nauseous colour, but I suspect it is the unwanted intimacy with the subject created by increasing the image size and removing the context. The work was hung low on the wall, making the image seem like an extension of the gallery space, suggesting that not only was the execution room occupied, but also that we might be the next victim.

Clearly Warhol had a fascination with death long before his near fatal shooting at the hands of Valerie Solanas and was reported to be afraid of dying if he went to sleep. However, this depiction of this ugly means of execution goes beyond the issue of unexpected sudden death explored by most of the disater series and involves the viewer in reflecting on the value and meaning of life. In particular, its mode of exhibition, which was dictated by Warhol, makes this confrontation with death not only moralistic, but undeniably melancholic.

©blackdog 2009


  1. I'm fascinated by some artworks of Andy Warhol,too especially by his idea of serial art as a kind of reflections on our modern consumption life world (not only in the States). Your analysis is complex and differenciated- a very good one!
    Personally I prefer the original photograph which could inspire a longer comment- and the early images of AW, including the anonymity and loneliness of the setting and the absurdity of the sign "Silence". I can well understand that AW got inspired by this photo- and his changings/processings by stylish colours like pink..., cropping, repetition... are very interesting surely containing a kind of moralistic and human message although he himself denied that by using coolish words. "Undeniebly melancholic"- yes, I agree with that statement, but the b&w photograph may enhance this mood quite stronger (if I may follow my feeling). Fascinating is the kind of image-hanging in the Tate gallery, including the 'visitors' into the execution situation. AW might have been impressed by this kind of completing an artwork!

  2. An interesting review about Andy Warhol's dealing with death...: (sorry in German)

  3. You make some good points too, especially the one about the absurdity of the Silence sign. From what I have read the Tate were following Warhol's wishes hanging the painting low on the wal - it was a definite strategy. It just seemed so much more "horrific" than the 15 repeats of the photograph. They too were coloured and to me lacked the impact of the later work - should also say that I have seen this one again since, so perhaps it is a little fresher in my mind.