I was ecstatic last week when Walter Benjamin’s essay A Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction came up in my contemporary art class. Alluding to ideas about the changed value of a copied image and capitalist production in the context of art, my professor referenced the theoretical work to introduce Pop artist Andy Warhol’s “Electric Chair” series. (How appropriate for a time when we’re looking at prison photography in class?)
A photograph of an empty electric chair, isolated in a dismal room with a sign that reads “silence,” makes up the base image of the collection. Rendered in different washes of color, the print is silkscreened—a printing technique used for, in Warhol’s case, mass-producing images.
Warhol was obsessed with this idea of large-scale reproduction and manufacturing, with market culture in America—and with serious (though controversial) intention he brought these interests into the realm of fine art. Artists like Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg had set up the Pop movement with work that moved away from the “gestural” (think of the active, painterly marks of a Jackson Pollock drip painting) qualities popular in art of the abstract expressionist movement. But it was Warhol who pushed the envelope with his silkscreened rows of Campbell’s tomato soup cans and Brillo boxes—a real celebration of and focus on consumer capitalism. As curator Jennifer Blessing at the Guggenheim notes, “[Warhol’s] embrace of subjects traditionally considered debased—from celebrity worship to food labels—has been interpreted as both an exuberant affirmation of American culture and a thoughtless espousal of the ‘low’” (Blessing). The artist’s scope and interests, however, eventually grew to include darker, more serious subject matter. His Electric Chair series, which he began in 1963 and would build on for two decades, was a prime example of this.
My contemporary art class was shown the image of the chair, mentioned above and, in this case, stained in purple, then was asked to compare it with “Silver Disaster,” another Warhol piece made up of the same image, but copied several times over. Other than the color, what about the image changed?
Repetition of the photograph, my professor raised, seemingly underscores what the (unfilled) chair at first represents—the poignancy of death and violence, which makes up its “aura.” “When you see a gruesome picture over and over again,” Warhol commented in a 1963 interview with Art News, “it doesn’t really have any effect” (Swenson). In another version in the series, for example, Orange Disaster #5, the image repeats fifteen times over, almost wallpaper-like in effect. What’s left of the chair’s meaning here when it has been reduced to a pattern?
Benjamin alludes to this “what’s left” part of a reproduced image in his essay. Perhaps the loss of an aura actually calls up some other social meaning: “…as man withdraws from the photographic image, the exhibition value for the first time shows it superiority to the ritual value… photographs become standard evidence for historical occurrences, and acquire a hidden political significance,” he says in his essay (Benjamin 226). The repetition of the image has been guessed to reference the endless visibility of disaster in the media at the time, for example (Blessing).
The copying maybe even sources the future tragedy of the people who will fall victim to the chair in history. Notes from a Christies sale of one of the prints, a blue version called “Little Electric Chair,” mentions “the empty chair [as] a motif often used in art history” (Andy Warhol (1928-1987) | Little Electric Chair). English artist Samuel Filde, for example, made a famous drawing of Charles Dickens’ unfilled library desk chair, sketched the day after the writer’s death and published in The Graphic magazine in 1870 (The Victorian Web). Here Filde captured an end, however, while Warhol only began to explore what’s still a present-day and heavily contested symbol of the death penalty in the U.S.
The mass production of the photograph, therefore, is maybe a good thing in the way it creates distance from the image’s aura and in effect makes a new kind of political commentary about it. What do you think?
Filde’s drawing of Charles Dickens’ chair
“Andy Warhol (1928-1987) | Little Electric Chair.” Christies. Web. 14 Oct. 2014. <http://www.christies.com/lotfinder/paintings/andy-warhol-little-electric-chair-5792591-details.aspx>.
Benjamin, W. (1968). The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. In H. Zohn (Trans.), Illuminations: Essays and reflections. New York: Schocken.
Blessing, Jennifer. “Andy Warhol.” The Guggenheim. Web. 14 Oct. 2014. <http://www.guggenheim.org/new-york/collections/collection-online/artwork/4177>.
Swenson, Gene R. “What Is Pop Art? Answers from Eight Painters, Part I,”. Vol. 7. 1963. 26. Print.
The Victorian Web. Web. 14 Oct. 2014. <http://www.victorianweb.org/painting/fildes/drawings/7.html>.
Electric Chair. 1980. By Andy Warhol.
Orange Disaster #5. 1963. By Andy Warhol.
Silver Disaster. 1963. By Andy Warhol.
The Empty Chair. 1870. By Luke Fildes.