Electric Chair 74 by Andy Warhol is a screenprint from the artist’s Electric Chair series (1971). This portfolio originated as part of the artist’s Death and Disaster collection, which contains some of the artist’s most jarring and controversial works. The series depicts macabre images of violence and tragedy found in the media. Notably, the complete Electric Chairs portfolio from 1971 ranks amongst Warhol’s top 10 most valuable portfolios ever sold.
In this haunting series, an image of an electric chair is shown abstracted with bright colors saturating the surface. Electric Chair 74 has a yellow background and bathes the chair in dark blue. This work creates a paradoxical effect, by covering the famous symbol of death and punishment in bright and vibrant colors. At the same time, the images are ghastly, evoking a feeling of loneliness and despair.
In 1962, Andy Warhol began his Death and Disaster series. This loose collection of artworks contained reproductions of the same electric chair images, saturated in monochrome. Warhol took the majority of his Death images from newspaper cuttings, depicting events such as car crashes and riots (many of these works are included in Warhol’s top 1o most valuable paintings ever sold). This photograph, taken from a press release in 1953, shows the death chamber at Sing Sing Prison in New York.
In an interview regarding Warhol’s so-called “Death paintings,” he commented on his inspiration for the series. “When you see a gruesome picture over and over again, it doesn’t really have any effect,” he remarked. Like many of his other works, this series presents multiple duplications of the same image. This repetitive appearance reduces the power of the image, while also emphasizing its syndication in the media. The debate over the death penalty reached its peak in the 1960s, making the original Electric Chair images very controversial. In the same year Warhol created the first electric chair painting, the New York’s Sing Sing Penitentiary conducted its final two executions by electrocution. In creating the series, Warhol comments on desensitization from the violence we see in the media every day.
Warhol also had an interest in the public’s reaction to the deaths of high profile individuals such as Marilyn Monroe and John F Kennedy. In 1963, when Gene Swenson asked why he started his “Death” pictures, Andy recalled a moment when Henry Geldzahler handed him a newspaper. “I guess it was the big plane crash picture, the front page of the newspaper: 129 dies” he recalled. “I was also painting the Marilyns. I realized that everything I was doing must have been Death. 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.” (Art News, 1963).
Mainly, this series ponders the idea of society’s desensitization to topics such as violence and mortality. Through these works, Warhol comments on the numbness within our culture surrounding the macabre, while also testing the limits to see what would be accepted in the art world. Electric Chair 74 is thus one of Warhol’s more unique and pensive works. The Electric Chairs portfolio continues to fascinate audiences today, and is one of Warhol’s most sought-after portfolios.