Shock to the system

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 45, Winter 2015

Page 3

Shock to the system

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 45, Winter 2015

Page 3

Shock to the system

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 45, Winter 2015

Page 3

Shock to the system

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 45, Winter 2015

Page 3

Andy Warhol's screenprints of American iconography are instantly recognizable. But he was not afraid to delve into the darker side of life. Adrian Dannatt visits Death Row

Do you believe in capital punishment?", Andy Warhol was asked by Glenn O'Brien, during an interview in 1977. To which Warhol replied with typical deadpan aplomb, "For art's sake, of course." And indeed for the sake of art Warhol had already made the electric chair one of his most familiar leitmotifs, a signature image. Warhol loved to shock and when he unveiled his first execution-seat, painted at the beginning of his 'Pop' career back in 1964, nothing was more literally shocking than to see 'Old Sparky' presented with all the aura of a formal portrait.

For Warhol, the electric chair was an all-American emblem – in fact, a specifically New York invention, created in Buffalo and first used in 1890 at the state's Auburn Prison. This was a contraption devised and used exclusively in the US, even if in 1942 Churchill did ponder borrowing the American machine "for gangsters", to execute Hitler in Trafalgar Square. The electric chair is part of that select, immediately recognizable, American iconography which was Warhol's specialty – the dollar bill, the hamburger, the Coca-Cola bottle, Hollywood stars, even the native American Indian, all visual shorthand for an entire national identity.

Warhol kept circling around this striking symbol, drawn by its grim allure. In 1967, he created 14 paintings for a Stockholm retrospective in varying color combinations, followed by a portfolio of ten prints in 1971. A decade later, Warhol had the brilliant idea, a pure post-modern gambit, to create a new body of work out of his own earlier iconography, a sort of extended re-mix of his personal 'greatest hits'. This was the Reversal series, of which Bonhams offers a prime example from the key year of 1980 in its Post-War & Contemporary Art Sale in London on 10 February. Here 14 electric chairs are transformed into an abstract pattern, their shifting shades obscuring the gravitas of the orginal image, allowing a delayed punch in which the significance of the subject seems to seep through the canvas like a mortal stain, emerging with menace through ostensibly pretty colours.

Warhol had been partly led to these Reversals by his friend Giorgio De Chirico, who in old age happily revived his best-known compositions from the beginning of the 20th century, as if 'appropriating' his own signature. But Warhol went further, not just reproducing celebrated earlier works but putting them through a series of tonal reversals, as if switching the negative and positive of a photograph or indeed the screenprinting process, to create something far darker, in every sense, and far more abstract. Here these Fourteen Small Electric Chairs – through the rich chiaroscuro, the deep tonal texture of green or pink on black – lose their identity, all meaning, becoming instead hieroglyphic devices, a numerical progression of forms, closer to Warhol's almost entirely abstract Shadow series.

A comparison between the Fourteen Electric Chairs of 1980 and the earlier prints is revelatory, not least as this work belonged to Bruno Bischofberger, the legendary art dealer and collector, who had published those prints in Zurich in 1971. Thus while the prints make a point of their blatant strength and cruel clarity, especially when exhibited together with the loudness of their clashing colors, the painting gains its force from precisely the elegance and discretion of its composition, the ambiguity of its shapes. A 'singular' image is created from these shifting variants, what philosopher Gilles Deleuze termed "difference and repetition" whereby we concentrate on each individual, minute difference due to the seeming regularity of repetition. By the time of this painting, the electric chair was nearly 100 years old and had been replaced in the majority of states by lethal injection, making this almost a memorial painting to mark its passing.

The source of Warhol's original electric chair painting of 1964 was a press photograph from 1953 of the device at Sing Sing used for the execution of spies Ethel and Julius Rosenberg. It tied it directly to another 20th century art work, Picasso's line drawing of the Rosenbergs. Indeed, Warhol's chair is linked to a whole micro-history of capital punishment in art, whether Goya's 1780 etching The Garrotted Man or his 1825 drawing Execution – by Guillotine. Paul Friedland's recent book, Seeing Justice Done: The Age of Spectacular Capital Punishment in France, details the many artistic versions of the guillotine, whether David's sketch of Marie Antoinette or decorative silver models of the machine. And in a very Warholian high-fashion fusion, its final manifestation must surely be Tom Sachs' ironic sculpture, Chanel Guillotine.

In that same interview of 1977, Glenn O'Brien's next question for Warhol was "Are you to the left of Dalí?" to which he answered, "On the bias." For Dalí was a notorious proponent of capital punishment, favoring Franco's garrote. What Warhol really thought of capital punishment was, of course, never revealed, his art being one of non-commital avoidance, the dodging of any definitive statement. But Warhol was from a conservative Catholic background, one of strong moral contrasts, a Manichean 'black and white' of good and bad. And as a close friend of Truman Capote, especially at the time of Capote's death-row bestseller In Cold Blood, and survivor of an assassination attempt himself, one might well second-guess Warhol's own convictions.

Warhol's Electric Chair comes from his interest in crime, as if emerging out of his 13 Most Wanted Men. These were billboard-scale mug shots of criminals that he hung on the State Pavilion at the New York World's Fair in 1964, the same year as his first electric chair. And these 13 Men surely presage the later 14 electric chairs, as if one chair had been provided for each of them to sit upon.

The first electric chair painting was created just a year after the last two executions at Sing Sing, and was part of the Death and Disaster series which Warhol began in 1962, reproducing the grisliest of newspaper photographs. One could even see some 'current' running between Warhol's series depicting the General Electric logo, its trademark 'GE' (like his favorite expression "Gee") and such corporate power as a method of killing.

Before Warhol, the most famous painting of a single chair without any occupant was by Van Gogh in 1888 –along with his painting of Gauguin's armchair by night – which stands as a clear compositional precedent. To extend this art-historical analogy, one could trace a lineage from Van Gogh's lonely chair through his great admirer Francis Bacon, whose 'screaming Popes' seem to provide a tortured occupant for Warhol's empty throne.

This sequence of influences – from Innocent X by Velázquez, through Van Gogh's chair and Bacon's own tortured Pope to Warhol's empty throne awaiting an occupant – forges an older religious lineage. Here, Warhol's chair suggests the historic Christian iconography of its murdered saints, those martyrs whose instruments of execution, from St Catherine's wheel to St Andrew's cross or St Vincent's rack, are depicted in every church. Just as Warhol's movie stars can be credibly compared to those icons of the Polish Catholic church he worshipped all his life, the golden Marilyn a secular gilded saint, so his electric chair parallels such vivid depictions of martyrdom. After all, Warhol's first chair was that used for the Rosenbergs, seen at the time very much as a contemporary martyrdom.

This fusion reaches its apotheosis in the 2006 sculpture Pietà by Paul Fryer, in which a highly realistic Christ has been 'fried' alive in a classic electric chair. In a later version, Fryer made his Christ a black man, an even more explicit link to current American penal practice. As he added, "Hundreds more black people have been executed in the chair than white people. We still execute people 2,000 years after Christ's death."

And capital punishment remains a potent subject for artists, such as Lucinda Devlin's Omega Suites of 1991-98, with its striking image of a bright yellow wooden electric chair. But like Warhol, Devlin is keen to stress her own absence of judgment . As she said, "My personal view of the role of capital punishment in our society is not an issue in these photographs. Rather, I have attempted to let the environments themselves communicate directly with viewers." And even when 'The Warhol' museum in Pittsburgh mounted an entire educational exhibition around the electric chair series, it provided all political points of view rather than any overtly liberal agenda. The last person in America executed by electric chair was Robert Gleason, at Greenville Correctional Center, Virginia, in January 2013. And Gleason, like every contemporary death row prisoner had to specifically choose this himself, refusing every other option, especially the standard lethal injection.

As the culmination of all Warhol's earlier versions, the Fourteen Electric Chairs of 1980 is both a summation of this extended iconography and also its ultimate subversion, pushing his notion of endless 'reproduction' into a terminal blur of abstract form, this near black-out, swamping darkness, suggesting the end of all such image making.

Thus this painting acts as a vital link between the whole Death and Disaster series begun in 1962 and what turned out to be Warhol's final work, his Last Supper series. Created in 1986, just six years after the Fourteen Chairs, the Last Supper is, of course, Warhol's most overtly Christian imagery. Its serried row of guests are laid out with the same repetition and variation as the electric chairs; the twelve apostles and their Lord themselves making up another set of 13 Most Wanted Men. And once again, with its own bright halo, the General Electric logo hovers above their heads in a surge of secular and spiritual power, this invisible and potentially fatal force.

Warhol's fascination with death and celebrity here reaches its apotheosis, with the world's most famous person and his own impending capital punishment, this man about to be buried in an unmarked and anonymous tomb. Or as Andy himself concluded, "I never understood why when you died, you didn't just vanish, everything could just keep going on the way it was only you just wouldn't be there. I always thought I'd like my own tombstone to be blank. No epitaph, and no name."

Adrian Dannatt is a freelance art critic.

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