Monday Modern Art Madness #11: Death-throe Americana in Andy Warhol’s “Electric Chair” series.

The God of American modernism, the apex “modern artist”whom the reputation of an Art-God proceeds him, a title that is in one and the same reality (we live in a society) warranted, and a creative fiction on the part of critics, collectors, gallery curators, and half-mad millionaire trend-hoppers of the art world. Some consider Warhol a visionary, but a patriot at art who embraced the capitalist american mythos. Other consider him an aesthetic terrorist, blowing up beauty and replacing it with the mundane and banal, attacking the psyche with a force of trendy chic-nihilism. Others (I.E. normies), consider him an artistic con-man that never could make it as an artist with “talent”, so he replicated things. Because lord knows we need more photo realist drawings of celebrities, and still-lifes of fruit.

Whatever one may think of Warhol and his machinic process and artistic visions, no one can downplay his importance to quintessentially American modern art. Warhol spoke to the post-war American experience like no one else, and embraced his role as weird avant-garde representative of Americana world-wide. Here in his series of silk-screen photos of a singular electric chair, we encounter a darker Warhol, shedding light inside the purposefully hidden spaces of American life (or rather death), like the carceral regime of the American judicial system.

Made in 1964 in the infamous “art factory”, the last year of state executions in New York state, Warhol used a singular image of an old-school strap-in election chain in a room with a lot of foreground. There are no humans in this image, in fact it is purposefully devoid of humanity. Warhol repeatedly and quickly replicated the image in glued-in silk screen prints with different colors, but preserved the graininess and grit of the image that one would only see on Television programs about state executions at the time. The colors fade in different spots, and there is a level of chance and spontaneousness to Warhol’s silk screen method of mechanically reproduced art (perhap’s Benjamin didn’t see everything coming in his essay), where each image would come out with different light sources, levels of graininess and color shades. The images almost resemble modern day vaporwave digital image manipulations.

Warhol had a unique relationship to the way death was handled in the Americna experience, once commenting that “everything about my work relates to death”. In his reproduced art about common mass-produced items and brands, there is the air of death, the death of localization, the death of community, the death of human fragility in mass capitalist society that claims to attend to every human need. Here death is on display, but it is a fading aesthetic homage to state-enforced death. Now a days the electric chair is too visceral and impactful for today’s blood-bayed hordes of death-seekers. The crowds no longer see public executions and cheer, the private audience no longer gets an exhibition of human goring and fragility as a condemned body thrashes, gnashes, and clenches while riding the lightning. Even in American developed-world high-society of the 1960s, Warhol knew that death was being banished and hidden from the public eye.

As Foucault said in the famous work Discipline And Punish: The Birth of The Prison:

“it is the certainty of being punished and not the horrifying spectacle of public punishment that must discourage crime”.

and with more justification on this point:

“But the punishment-body relation is not the same as it was in the torture during public executions. The body now serves as an instrument or intermediary: if one intervenes upon it to imprison it, or to make it work, it is in order to deprive the individual of a liberty that is regarded both as a right and as property. The body, according to this penality, is caught up in a system of constraints and privations, obligations and prohibitions. Physical pain, the pain of the body itself, is no longer the constituent element of the penalty. From being an art of unbearable sensations punishment has become an economy of suspended rights”.

No longer can we live in a culture that reminds us of death, so it must be hidden at all costs in order for the various “regimes of truth” to operate effectively. Being a devout Catholic, Warhol knew the meaning of Momento-Mori and therefore used his artistic lends to highlight another facet of mass american industrial production: the industrial production of death. Only now this death is not a physical death that is sanctioned by the state, but a spiritual one, the one that controls life and takes away freedoms, rather than makes torture and death a lurid public display. This is too primordial, the electric chair is too archaic for the total “modern” and detached public, death is merely a video-game simulation today.

Say what you will about the lack of Warhol’s “artistic talent”, or skill and ability to depict an image, his mechanical reproduction tired to keep up with the evanescence and spontaneity of his subjects. Especially the subject of death that is made to hide, and play a game of cultural amnesia-peek-a-boo with the modern American public, arising only once in awhile, in the most sanitized and controlled of images, rather than in a full view that exposes the very real mass heaps of death the American carceral, war and industrial machines produce.


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