Andy Warhol (American, 1928-1987) 14 Small Electric Chairs Reversal Series 1980

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Lot 49*
Andy Warhol
(American, 1928-1987)
14 Small Electric Chairs Reversal Series

£ 4,000,000 - 6,000,000
US$ 4,900,000 - 7,300,000
Andy Warhol (American, 1928-1987)
14 Small Electric Chairs Reversal Series

signed, dated 1980, inscribed 14 small colored electric chairs reversal series and with the Andy Warhol Art Authentication Board stamp and number A117.103 on the overlap
silkscreen ink and polymer paint on canvas

202.5 by 81.8 cm.
79 3/4 by 32 3/16 in.


  • This work is accompanied by a certificate of authenticity from the Andy Warhol Art Authentication Board, Inc., New York.

    Galerie Bruno Bischofberger, Zurich
    Private Collection, Europe
    Private Collection, USA
    Acquired from the above by the present owner

    Zurich, Galerie Bruno Bischofberger, Reversal Series, 1980
    Vienna, Museum moderner Kunst – Museum des 20. Jahrhunderts, Warhol '80, Serie Reversal, 1981
    Hamburg, Kunstverein, Andy Warhol, 1987, p. 50, no. 25, illustrated in colour
    Hamburg, Deichtorhallen Hamburg; Stuttgart, Württembergischer Kunstverein, Andy Warhol Retrospektiv, 1993-1994, p. 129, illustrated in colour
    Seoul, Ho-Am Art Gallery, Andy Warhol: Pop Art's Superstar, 1994
    Zurich, Galerie Bruno Bischofberger, Chairs, 2006

    Neil Printz and Remo Guidieri, Andy Warhol: death and disaster, Houston 1988, p. 20, illustrated in black and white

    Ambitious in both its scale and its intentions, 14 Small Electric Chairs Reversal Series, executed by Andy Warhol in 1980, offers a rare opportunity to witness the artist at his most profound. Employing his signature technique of multiple repetition, combined here with a vivid and playful palette, this work is instantly recognisable as a Warhol masterpiece and represents the opportunity to acquire a work of undeniable museum quality. Its subject matter, too, is familiar since the Electric Chair that is represented here could accurately be described as one of his most iconic images, similar Electric Chair works now reside in some of the world's most prestigious public and private collections such as the Tate Gallery London, the Guggenheim Museum New York, The Menil Collection Houston, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Boston Museum of Fine Art.

    It was certainly an image that Warhol viewed as crucial to his own artistic development, as demonstrated by his return to it almost two decades after it first appeared in his work. At a stage in his career in which he was already recognised as a modern master, Warhol took the decision to revisit the iconography which had first made his name, producing new versions of his most influential and ground-breaking early canvases. In 14 Small Electric Chairs Reversal Series we find Warhol referencing Warhol, revisiting a series which had first established him as a name to be reckoned with, adding artistic maturity to it in the process. A large canvas which combines arresting visuals with weighty allusion, this painting is both aesthetically and psychologically engaging; sombre yet colourful, uncanny yet beautiful, 14 Small Electric Chairs Reversal Series embodies nothing less than a Twentieth-Century vision of the sublime.

    It is the size of this painting which first grabs your attention. At over two metres high, 14 Small Electric Chairs Reversal Series towers above its audience, its vertical composition pulling the eye ever upwards. Bringing to mind the skyscrapers of Warhol's own beloved New York, it climbs heavenwards with a steady, almost classical regularity, image after image, on and on. Then it is the colour which attracts the eye, from burning orange to rich emerald to warm purple, illuminating the canvas with a dazzling polychrome array. Finally it is the subject matter itself which emerges, familiar and yet strangely different. Its tones reversed, 14 Small Electric Chairs Reversal Series presents us with an image of radiant intensity, darkness converted into intense light, and vice versa. Only when all of these elements come together can the true power of this important painting be appreciated. Lofty and commanding, taller than a man, this is a work of art that makes its presence felt.

    Warhol's inspiration for the subject matter of this 14 Small Electric Chairs Reversal Series came from one of his most important early series, a group of canvases now known as his Death and Disaster paintings. Apparently believing that the artist needed a change of tack, something different from all of the Soup Cans and Coke bottles that he had been painting previously, Metropolitan Museum of Art curator Henry Geldzahler advised Warhol to move his work in a different, perhaps more profound direction. Geldzahler showed Warhol a shocking newspaper front page bearing the headline '129 DIE IN JET', with a photograph of an air crash featured below. A painting using that newspaper front page as its subject was soon complete, and a new Warhol began to emerge; no longer interested solely in the American way of life, he now also turned his attention towards the American way of death. The series of around seventy works which developed from this pivotal encounter have been described as "the most powerful and searing works that Warhol ever made" (Keith Hartley, Warhol: A Celebration of Life...and Death, Edinburgh 2007, p. 51). Critics who had previously suspected him of being too low brow, over-obsessed with the mundanity of daily existence, realised that Warhol had more to say.

    Car wrecks, plane crashes, suicide, a Tunafish Disaster (in which two housewives were killed by tainted tinned tuna) and, of course, the Electric Chairs, these canvases dealt with loss, tragedy and destruction on many levels. The image used for the Electric Chair paintings was a press photograph of the death chamber in New York's infamous Sing Sing correctional facility taken in 1953, when American spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed there for passing nuclear secrets to the Soviet Union. Death may be an everyday event, but in re-appropriating such shocking images, Warhol was selecting specific deaths which had been repackaged for public consumption: this was death as celebrity, and death as entertainment. The critics were won over, and the public too. Although it might be assumed that such unsettling subject matter would prove to be commercially problematic, in fact Warhol correctly predicted that his audience would be drawn to the macabre, and enjoy the catharsis of being unsettled or even horrified by such images.

    The early 1980s are now regarded as a period when Warhol's oeuvre found a new vitality. This revived sense of purpose seems to have emerged largely thanks to the artist's return to the iconic images he had used almost two decades before. During this period, he not only produced his Reversal series, which included 14 Small Electric Chairs Reversal Series of 1980, but also a group of paintings known as the Retrospectives. In reusing his Marilyns, his Flowers, his Self-portraits and his Electric Chairs, Warhol was not only referencing himself, but also identifying these as his most influential, significant and instantly recognisable images. Effectively becoming a curator of his own past output, Warhol selected, and then reproduced, only the best, re-appropriating those paintings which were also deservedly the most famous. In doing so, Warhol also subtly manipulated these iconic images, producing startling outcomes. While the Retrospectives grouped together classic Warhol images into huge single works, in the Reversal series the tonality of the images is reversed, creating an image not unlike a photographic negative. In 14 Small Electric Chairs Reversal Series this resemblance to a negative is made even more striking by the composition consisting of long strips of images.

    In these works, a well-known picture becomes something seemingly unfamiliar, and in the case of 14 Small Electric Chairs Reversal Series, even more poignant. In this painting, the reversal results in an austere electric chair emerging from an almost black background, the chair itself beaming out, x-ray like, from the surrounding gloom. Surely none of Warhol's most famous images are better suited to the process of Reversal than this one, the electric chair buzzing and glimmering in a moment of electrifying tension. Warhol successfully lifts the surrounding darkness created by such a reversal with those eye-catching strokes of striking colour, adding a sense of vigour and creating unexpected relationships between areas of light and shadow. In asking the viewer to revisit an image from the past, Warhol compels us to re-examine and reassess, to take another look and discover new aesthetic approaches and responses.

    Although Warhol liked to imagine his Factory as a production line and the artist himself as a virtual machine, elements of chance also sneak into his works, the medium almost taking on a life of its own. Talking of the process in 1980, the artist showed himself to be aware of this unpredictability in his practice, but seems to have taken it in his stride, relishing the speed and simplicity of screening: "You pick a photograph, blow it up, transfer it in glue onto silk, and then roll ink across so that the ink goes through the silk but not through the glue. That way you get the same image, slightly different each time. It was all so simple – quick and chancy. I was thrilled with it" (The artist in: Pat Hackett, POPism: The Warhol Sixties, London 2007, p. 28). The additional colour elements in 14 Small Electric Chairs Reversal Series add a sense of depth and disparity to the composition, as huge sweeps of glowing neon hues light up one half of the canvas, redolent of one of Dan Flavin's fluorescent light structures. Typical of this period of Warhol's output, the colours are added with a painterly freedom, clashing and intermingling in exultant abandon. Although Pop Art is regularly identified as the antithesis to the Action Painting which had come before it, in 14 Small Electric Chairs Reversal Series these loops and swoops of paint are strikingly reminiscent of abstract works by men like Franz Kline and Willem de Kooning.

    Despite its momentous theme, 14 Small Electric Chairs Reversal Series is a painting filled with energy, movement and life. The contrast between the two vertical strips of electric chairs in this work is stark, one side monochrome and bleak, the other soaked in intense luminosity. The fact that the strips are slightly out of synch with each other, not quite meeting where they should, tricks the eye into imagining a kinetic quality, evocative of a strip of film as it rattles through an old-fashioned movie-projector. Like Warhol's own movies, this painting invites the viewer to contemplate an object, to build up a close connection with it. In Sleep, filmed in 1963, Warhol focused his movie camera on the sleeping face of close friend and artist John Giorno for five hours twenty minutes. The following year his cinematic masterwork Empire comprised an eight-hour-long single shot of New York's most iconic building. Similarly spellbinding, 14 Small Electric Chairs Reversal Series allows the viewer to build up an intimacy with its almost mesmeric subject matter, to become a voyeur peering into another life. Furthermore, the scene it portrays is certainly suggestive of a film set, the location for some wonderfully stylish film noir perhaps, a stage awaiting its actors. The narrative of the film can only be imagined, and its script remains unwritten, but we can be sure that it will be heady stuff, a tale of crime and retribution, justice or revenge. Candy-coloured perhaps, but certainly never candy-coated, 14 Small Electric Chairs Reversal Series is not a painting concerned with the lightweight or the trivial.

    Unlike many, if not most, of the other works included in the Death and Disaster series, 14 Small Electric Chairs Reversal Series features no human figures. The chair itself is vacant, and the room it inhabits is empty. As such, this is a painting concerned with the notion of space, a concept which certainly interested Warhol: "When I look at things, I always see the space they occupy. I always want the space to reappear, to make a comeback, because it's lost space when there's nothing in it. If I see a chair in a beautiful space, no matter how beautiful the chair is, it can never be as beautiful to me as the plain space" (The artist in: The Philosophy of Andy Warhol, London 2007, p. 144). In 'reversing' the image here, Warhol brings this space into view, radically enhancing the subtler contrast between chair and ambient space which can be seen in the original image. The dynamic relationship between this chair, its various incarnations either monochrome or rainbow-hued, and the obscure environment in which it sits, silent and alone, is dramatic and all-encompassing. As Magritte demonstrated in his Man with a Newspaper of 1928, the implications of an empty chair are both frustratingly ambiguous and intriguingly endless. Nature abhors a vacuum, and empty space needs to be filled. What it will be filled with remains to be seen.

    Warhol was hardly the first, nor indeed the last artist to deal with the fragility of life in his work. In fact, the theme is an age-old one, a chilling, thrilling subject which has fascinated generations of artists. Becoming known during the medieval age as the memento mori (a Latin phrase which can be translated as 'remember that you must die'), the concept was particularly suitable in the developing Christian world, where questions of worldly mortality, as well as heavenly immortality, were key in ongoing attempts to understand the human condition. Often featuring disintegrating fruit or skulls, such paintings reminded the viewer that no one can escape their ultimate fate. Et in Arcadia ego: even in paradise there is loss and bereavement, and everything is ultimately ephemeral. Painted in 1533, Hans Holbein's iconic The Ambassadors contains one of the most enigmatic skulls in Art History: despite the inclusion of noble and academic instruments in the background, the distorted skull acts as a stark and inescapable reference to mortality. In the late 1970s, Warhol not only painted skulls, but posed for self-portraits with one perched on his shoulder. While they may remind us of our end, these works of art also inevitably celebrate the wonder of life. It is such images that prompt us to seize the day, and to value every minute of our ephemeral existence. There is optimism even, in the idea that every ending may bring a new beginning.

    It would be easy to consider Warhol's Death and Disaster paintings as a group entirely apart from his images of celebrities and film stars. In fact, the works are not as distinct as one might wish to imagine. Take, for example, a Marilyn, and place it next to 14 Small Electric Chairs Reversal Series. Both feature images from the mass media, one a Hollywood star, the other the location (and also the instrument) of an infamous execution. Like the present work, the Marilyn images were a response to a high-profile death, the canvases first being produced in the months after the star's apparent suicide in August 1962. That Warhol analysed the relative 'celebrity' of the images used in his Death and Disaster paintings is revealed in his own words: "The death series I did was divided into two parts. The first on famous deaths [such as that of the Rosenbergs in the electric chair], and the second on people nobody ever heard of [such as the tuna fish poisonings]...I thought it would be nice for these unknown people to be remembered by those who, ordinarily, wouldn't think of them" (the artist in: Mike Wrenn, Andy Warhol: In His Own Words, London 1991, p. 19). Even in death, or more accurately thanks to their death, Warhol granted his subjects a sort of fame, bestowing on them that oft-quoted fifteen minutes, a chance at artistic immortality. Whether he was portraying a disaster or a diva, celebrity was never far from Warhol's mind.

    In the years since his own untimely demise almost three decades ago, Warhol's reputation has only continued to grow. He is now universally considered as one of the most important and influential artists of the Twentieth-Century, and his radical approach to art and what it should reference has influenced countless numbers of today's artists, and will continue to do so. Aside from a few small legacies to family, the bulk of the artist's estate was devoted to setting up a Foundation in his name to promote and present his art to the world, and a museum dedicated to his work was established in downtown Pittsburgh. It almost goes without saying that his paintings now hang in all of the world's most distinguished public galleries, and many of its greatest private ones too. The Tate Gallery London, the Guggenheim Museum New York, The Menil Collection Houston, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Boston Museum of Fine Art are just some of the renowned institutions which hold one of Warhol's Electric Chairs in their collection. Exhibitions dedicated to the artist are constantly being opened around the world, drawing huge audiences wherever they are held. Warhol's international appeal is demonstrated by the present work's own exhibition history, which includes appearances in important retrospective shows in Seoul, Stuttgart and Hamburg. No surprise then that the record price for an Electric Chair image was smashed in 2014, when a 1967-8 canvas achieved over $20,000,000 at auction in New York.

    14 Small Electric Chairs Reversal Series of 1980 looms large before us, dark yet inviting. The original photographic image has been cropped, with all of the surrounding ephemera visible in earlier paintings, such as the doors and the 'Silence' sign in the background, now excised. The focus of the viewer is drawn inexorably to the vacant chairs themselves, the image repeated over and over in hypnotic regularity. The fact that these chairs are empty is surely significant: while other paintings from the Death and Disaster series feature victims or even potential rescuers, in this case there is just the chair and, by implication, the viewer. An important work of art by the most important artist of the post-modern age, this painting considers the very essence of human existence. Like a doorway into a shadowy realm, 14 Small Electric Chairs Reversal Series may fill us with trepidation, but still we are irresistibly drawn towards it, like moths to a beautiful, fatal flame.
Andy Warhol (American, 1928-1987) 14 Small Electric Chairs Reversal Series 1980
Andy Warhol (American, 1928-1987) 14 Small Electric Chairs Reversal Series 1980
Andy Warhol (American, 1928-1987) 14 Small Electric Chairs Reversal Series 1980
Andy Warhol (American, 1928-1987) 14 Small Electric Chairs Reversal Series 1980
Andy Warhol (American, 1928-1987) 14 Small Electric Chairs Reversal Series 1980
Andy Warhol (American, 1928-1987) 14 Small Electric Chairs Reversal Series 1980
Andy Warhol (American, 1928-1987) 14 Small Electric Chairs Reversal Series 1980
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