Electric Chair 78 by Andy Warhol is a screenprint from the artist’s infamous Electric Chair series (1971). Originally, Warhol experimented with the electric chair concept in the early 1960s, when he painted the same electric chair shown here. The concept originated as part of his Death and Disaster series. The “Death Paintings” are a loose collection of artworks from the 1960s, which include images of violence and tragedy taken from newspaper clippings and other forms of media. They make up some of Warhol’s most controversial works, which shocked the public with their morbid subject matter. Electric Chair 78 and its accompanying screenprints are renditions of the early electric chair images from Death and Disaster. Notably, the complete 1971 Electric Chair series ranks amongst Warhol’s top 10 most valuable series ever sold.
Society’s relationship with violence and death fascinated Warhol. With the Death prints, he comments on the media’s tendency to constantly present violent and disastrous images. Furthermore, Warhol explores his society’s numbness to violence as a consequence of perpetually consuming terrifying news material. Repetition has always been a long-running motif in Warhol’s art, and the media’s constant, morbid newsflashes play directly into this theme. The artist once explained, “When you see a gruesome picture over and over again, it doesn’t really have any effect” (Art News, 1963). Society’s effortless ability to ignore the horror and desensitize itself to tragic events intrigued Warhol. Through this macabre inspiration, Warhol was able to create a number of highly successful paintings. Several of the Death and Disaster works rank amongst Warhol’s top 10 most valuable paintings of all time.
In 1971, Andy Warhol created his Electric Chair portfolio, a ten piece series showing the death chamber at Sing Sing Prison. He took the image from a 1953 press release that pictured the chair, nicknamed “Old Sparky” by its operators. Electric Chair 78 showcases an abstracted version of the chair. The image is saturated in muted grey and purple tones, unlike the vibrant hues in the rest of the series. Each print in the Electric Chair portfolio contains the same image repeated in different colors, on brand with Warhol’s signature practice of repetition.
During the same time Warhol created the original Electric Chair paintings, a storm of controversy surrounded the topic of capital punishment. In 1963, the same year Warhol published Little Electric Chair, New York’s Sing Sing Penitentiary conducted what would be its final two executions by electrocution. Consequently, a wave of social unrest erupted in New York, which only brought more controversial attention to Warhol’s creation. Warhol’s Electric Chair does not present a stance on the topic; rather, it forces the viewer to confront the gruesome reality.
Other notable works from Death and Disaster include Birmingham Race Riot, and Suicide (Fallen Body). In a late-1963 interview, Warhol once explained why he chose to create such gruesome images. “I guess it was the big plane crash picture” he recalls. “The front page of the newspaper: 129 dies. 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 doing to die.’ That started it.”
Electric Chair 78 and the Death collection presented a darker side of Warhol’s creative mind during his early career. The topics involved in these works comprise what Andy noticed to be mainstream at the time. Naturally, he wouldn’t let something so widespread sneak past him. Thus, Electric Chair 87 spawns from one of the most sincere, direct moments in Warhol’s career. The Electric Chair prints are some of his most valuable work, and continue to sell for top-dollar to this day.