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Big Electric Chair

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Big Electric Chair

Artist: Andy Warhol (American, 1928 - 1987)

Date: 1967
Medium: Acrylic and silkscreened enamel on canvas
Overall: 54 x 74in. (137.2 x 188cm)
Signed: Potentially signed and dated on canvas overlap
Credit Line: Museum Purchase
Object number: 86.56
Label Text
In the early 1960s, Andy Warhol created the "Disasters" series--works of art depicting auto and plane crashes, suicides, and poisonings. He was struck by the banality of these horrific events once they were played out in the news media, and said, "When you see a gruesome picture over and over again, it doesn't really have any effect."

At the same time, Warhol began working on a series of images based on the electric chair. Until the 1995 reversal of the death penalty in New York State, the last executions took place in 1963. The image of the electric chair Warhol selected may be stark and menancing, but he defies the emotional impact of his subject matter in the way he represents it. Rather than painting the image expressively--using strong colors and brushwork--Warhol used the impersonal and distancing process of screen-printing to reproduce a photograph. In this way, he emulated the emotionally numbing effects of the news.

Mary E. Murray

Text Entries

The Big Electric Chair of Andy Warhol, depicting the most prominent tool of capital punishment in a highly industrialized society, carries a meaningful significance as almost no other object of public interest. Together with Warhol’s Atomic Bomb (Hubert Peeters, Bruges), “Car Crashes,” “Race Riots,” and others, this image functions as an ideographic sign and, for that reason, was depicted by Warhol beginning in 1963 from a file of newspaper photographs and photographic police records. The technique of representation has an integral and reciprocal correlation to the image itself, generating content and meaning: silkscreen reproduction, on a cool gray/blue background, requires no manual involvement in creating the result, as the electrocution of a human being by an electric chair was conceived as “the best method [sic!] of carrying out the provisions of the law.”(1) With the Big Electric Chair Warhol intends to demonstrate the ultimate expression of internal state sovereignty in dealing with its enemies; with the Atomic Bomb its ultimate expression in dealing with other nations.

In September 1945, just fifteen years old, Warhol registered at the art school of Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburgh, choosing a career in the Fine Arts! What a remarkable choice, considering the artist’s background. In awe of almost everything, two years below the average student’s age, Warhol was raised in typical working class circumstances—coal-mining, minimum wages—and worked to pay his way through school. At the end of World War II, in Europe as well as in the South Pacific, the colleges and universities were flooded with veterans. These aged and experienced men with their rough macho- army behavior, and their exotic and brutal experiences, made a lasting impression on the then-teenaged fellow student.

After two years of more or less successful assimilation, from 1947 to 1949, Warhol was confronted with a highly sophisticated program in Pictorial Design, as the course at the Carnegie Institute was called. It stressed and required of the visual artist a keen sense of observation and of understanding for formal projections of meaningful experience, which were to be understood as “the social flux in a social setting with ever changing interrelations of the individual and its community.”(2) The program for the 1948 Pictorial Design course shows that it was meant to be a formal study of what was called the social flux, of the community and its individuals: “this includes formal elements of neighborhood, of housing (in which people spend more than a third of their time), of human behavior as reflected by masters of short stories and novels,” and it stressed “clothing as a sign giving process of social status and personal taste.”(3)

It is mainly this last aspect that reminds us of the inner dichotomy of socially formed code systems and the individually shaped transformation of experienced social structure into memory. Thus, this course was—as Warhol’s art is—about the alteration of “primary data”(4) into adequate graphic signs, which transforms information into art.



1. Encyclopedia Britannica, rev. ed., s.v. “Electrocution.”

2. Robert Lepper, Professor of Art at the Carnegie Institute of Technology, in his outline for the course Pictorial Design, given in the junior and senior years, as published in Rainer Crone, Das Bildnerische Werk Andy Warhols (Berlin: Wasmuth, 1976), pp. 243-52.

3. Ibid., p. 244.

4. lbid., p. 245.


© Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts / Licensing by ARS, New York, NY