The final peer-assessed assignment for Coursera MOOC on Andy Warhol run by Edinburgh University was to write between 650-750 words to describe, discuss and evaluate a piece of Warhol’s work. This is what I wrote:
Andy Warhol always struck the pose of an artist who chanced upon an image in much the same way that a child might discover a striking picture in a glossy magazine.
Yet a sparse and evocative photograph of an electric chair hardly seems to be a random choice. A real photograph carries a weight of fact, even though it can be deciphered in various ways.
Warhol’s image was adapted from a 1953 photograph taken at Sing-Sing Gaol in New York and produced in 1964. It was presented to the Tate Modern in London by Janet Wolfson de Botton in 1996. The medium is screen print and acrylic paint on a canvas sized 562 x 711 mm.
Warhol subsequently re-used the photo for a series of fourteen prints in different colour combinations but this particular one has a muddy, minimalistic colour scheme almost as if the picture has deteriorated with age. An unwitting viewer might therefore mistake it for a torture instrument from a bygone era rather than a killing machine which is still in use in many parts of the USA, albeit on a reduced scale.
This work is central to Warhol’s Death And Disaster series which include other representations of suicide and car crashes. The work therefore relates to the theme of death, which was covered in week three of the MOOC. This series is in marked contrast to those works commonly associated with Pop Art which reproduced bright and glamorous images from advertising sources, consumer products and Hollywood portraits.
The starkness of the electric chair is so marked that has echoes of the papal chair in Francis Bacon’s chilling Study after Velasquez I (1953) but the absence of a human figure makes it a much more ambiguous piece of work.
By presenting an empty execution chamber, it is natural to speculate on what Warhol’s real intentions were. Some critics claim that it shows a political side to his character in that it appears to be challenging us to view the electric chair is an inappropriate means of administering justice. Norman Bryson in an essay entitled In Medusa’s Gaze called it “the ultimate still life”. It was discussed by I.Bennett Capers, in the California law review, in terms of its implications with regard to issues of crime and punishment.
Yet this image is very different from a movie such as Krzysztof Kieslowski’s A Short Film About Killing from 1988 where a parallel between an act of murder (by strangulation) and a public execution (by hanging) was drawn by the Polish director to show his opposition to the death penalty.
With Warhol’s work, it cannot be definitively stated that a simple, uncluttered image of an electric chair is making such a clear statement against capital punishment. After all, a photograph of an abattoir is not necessarily making a pro-vegetarian statement. Warhol famously gave no clues as to his moral position, replying “No meaning. No meaning” when asked about his motives. As with most of his work, he lit the blue touch-paper and then stood back, leaving it to others to draw their own conclusions.
In the absence of explanation we may look for meaning from context. In 1963, the Sing Sing Death Chamber was the location of the two final executions in New York State of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.
While the vast majority of those on death row have been convicted of murder, this married couple were found guilty of espionage having passed on classified information about the atomic bomb to the Soviet Union. Julius Rosenberg died quickly in the chair but the first three successive jolts did not kill his wife Ethel straightaway. As with the recent botched execution by lethal injection of Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma, such incidents serve to inflame controversy about capital punishment.
A level of violent crime and murder in the USA proves that the death penalty is not an effective form of deterrent. In consequence, executions can only be seen as eye for an eye acts of retribution which, in my view, have no place in a civilised society. Ultimately, however, the interpretation of Warhol’s image depends on where you stand on this issue.
As he was well aware, beauty, as well as brutality, is in the eye of the beholder.