Andy Warhol - Evening & Day Editions London Thursday, September 21, 2023 | Phillips
  • “You’d be surprised how many people want to hang an electric chair on their living-room wall. Specially if the background colour matches the drapes.”
    —Andy Warhol

    Powerful in its quiet exposure of the horror and cruelty that permeated mid-century America, Andy Warhol’s Electric Chairs (1971) depicts the artist’s enduring concerns with image, mass-media, death, and tragedy. Throughout the 1960s, America was at the centre of heated debates concerning the ethics of capital punishment. Warhol produced the first Electric Chair in 1964, shortly after the last executions by electrocution were conducted in New York state. For the series, Warhol used an unsettling 1953 photograph of the death chamber at Sing Sing Prison, Ossining, New York where American citizens Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed in 1953 after being convicted as spies for the Soviet Union. Extensively covered in the press during the politically-charged Cold War era, the case was a scandal that revealed the country’s paranoia during the period. Depicting one of America’s most infamous inventions, the present lot is a chilling portrait of society’s morbid obsession with horror and the repressed anxieties that characterised American consciousness during the Cold War.


    Edouard Manet, Execution of Maximilian, 1868-69, Kunsthalle, Mannheim. Image: White Images/Scala, Florence


    Death is an enduring motif that permeates through the history of art. While many artworks exult in envisioning realms of the afterlife, both paradisiacal and infernal, many others refer to death in the form of somber memento mori – poignantly acknowledging life's fleeting nature and serving as a potent impetus to embrace life wholeheartedly. The horror of death itself has also been repeatedly represented throughout art history: Édouard Manet brutally depicted the very moment that Emperor Maximilian of Mexico was executed by firing squad upon orders from Napoleon III in his 1868-89 painting; Claude Monet depicted his wife Camille on her death bed in 1879; and countless artists have presented visceral Crucifixion scenes and gory depictions of Salome with John the Baptist's severed head. In the mid-sixties, veering away from his preoccupation with soup cans and Coke bottles, Andy Warhol embraced the powerful theme of death. This decision to confront the theme head on was prompted by his friend Henry Geldzahler, a young curator, who said to Warhol over lunch at Serendipity, Warhol’s favourite New York restaurant, in 1962:

    “It’s enough life, it’s time for a little death”
    —Henry Geldzahler

    Warhol first tackled the theme of death in his screenprint reproduction of the front-page of the June 4th 1962 edition of the New York Mirror. Emblazoned with the headline ‘129 Die in Jet!’, Warhol’s artwork nods to the media’s excitement surrounding tragic events. That same summer, Warhol began to produce his defining portraits of the late Marylin Monroe following her suicide. He soon embarked on his Death and Disaster series, in which he focused on challenging subjects such as car crashes, suicides, atomic bombs and, most iconically, the electric chair. Warhol found ample source material in the police and press photographs in newspapers, images whose inherent reproducibility was extended in his mechanical silkscreen process. By intertwining moments of violence, death, and tragedy with the mechanics of spectacle and mass-reproduction, Warhol explored a darker side of American life hidden behind the façade of post-war affluence and optimism.


    [Left] Jan van Eyck, Crucifixion and Last Judgement, 1430-1440, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Image: © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Fletcher Fund, 1933, 33.92ab
    [Right] Guido Reni, Salome with the Head of Saint John the Baptist, c. 1639–42, Art Institute of Chicago. Image: Art Institute of Chicago, Louise B. and Frank H. Woods Purchase Fund, 1960.3

    The electric chair, an instrument of impersonal, industrialised execution, merged Warhol’s obsessions with mechanised production and death. Unlike the rest of the Death and Disaster series and other art historical precedents centred on death, the mechanisation of death is made even more disturbing in Electric Chairs due to the absence of human presence in the image. Defined by stillness and silence, the present lot leaves the potential for violence to the viewer’s imagination, compelling the spectator to reflect on a series of existential questions concerning crime and punishment, life and death. Moreover, by reiterating the same image of the lone electric chair, Warhol alludes to the object’s nature as an instrument for the mass-production of death. Drawing obvious connections to the screenprint process itself, Electric Chairs combines seriality, repetition and the mechanics of reproduction to echo Warhol’s idea that “When you see a gruesome picture over and over again, it doesn’t really have an effect.” Since the beginning of his career, Warhol understood that prolonged exposure to violence led to a desensitisation of it, revealing the banality of evil and the capacity for great cruelty that characterised contemporary American society.

    “When you see a gruesome picture over and over again, it doesn’t really have an effect.”
    —Andy Warhol

    Warhol probed the macabre subject of Electric Chairs further using the vivid, bold colours of Pop, creating a jarring tension within the piece. Just as the endless repetition of Monroe’s promotional headshot speaks to ideas surrounding the construction and consumption of celebrity and the apparent inevitability of tragedy, Electric Chairs pushes the limits of Pop to investigate the darker underside of the American psyche and its relation to mass-production, consumption and spectacle. As writer Philip Brophy has surmised: “If Warhol is about America, then the electric chair is the seat of American Culture. Like a transmogrified porch rocking chair, this fusion of Gothic American folk and maverick industrial inventiveness declares its own ingenuity as applied to the act of killing.”i





    i Philip Brophy, ‘Die Warhol Die’, Andy Warhol, (exh. cat.), South Brisbane, 2007, p. 73.

    • Provenance

      Galerie Clemens Gunzer, Zurich
      Acquired directly from the above by the present owner in 2013

    • Literature

      Frayda Feldman and Jörg Schellmann 74-83

    • Artist Biography

      Andy Warhol

      American • 1928 - 1987

      Andy Warhol was the leading exponent of the Pop Art movement in the U.S. in the 1960s. Following an early career as a commercial illustrator, Warhol achieved fame with his revolutionary series of silkscreened prints and paintings of familiar objects, such as Campbell's soup tins, and celebrities, such as Marilyn Monroe. Obsessed with popular culture, celebrity and advertising, Warhol created his slick, seemingly mass-produced images of everyday subject matter from his famed Factory studio in New York City. His use of mechanical methods of reproduction, notably the commercial technique of silk screening, wholly revolutionized art-making.

      Working as an artist, but also director and producer, Warhol produced a number of avant-garde films in addition to managing the experimental rock band The Velvet Underground and founding Interview magazine. A central figure in the New York art scene until his untimely death in 1987, Warhol was notably also a mentor to such artists as Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat.


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Property From A Private Swiss Collection


Electric Chairs (F. & S. 74-83)

The complete set of 10 screenprints in colours, on wove paper, the full sheets.
all S. 90.2 x 121.9 cm (35 1/2 x 47 7/8 in.)
All signed and dated in black ballpoint pen and stamp-numbered 168/250 on the reverse (there were also 50 artist's proofs in Roman numerals), published by Bruno Bischofberger, Zurich (with their and the printer's copyright inkstamps on the reverse), all framed.

Full Cataloguing

£150,000 - 200,000 

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Evening & Day Editions

London Auction 21 - 22 September 2023