Red Disaster (one of two panels)

Warhol, Andy

Primary Category: Visual Arts / Painting/Drawing

Genre: Silkscreen ink on synthetic polymer paint on linen

Annotated by:
Henderson, Schuyler
  • Date of entry: Mar-29-2005
  • Last revised: May-09-2005


Reproduced in the blood-red and black of horror films, this series of prints shows the electric chair in the death chamber at Sing Sing prison, arranged as twelve identical images: three across and four down. Warhol frequently repeated silkscreens with variations in colour, size and number of repetitions of the image.


Few artists are so judged by the scope of their oeuvre as Andy Warhol. His was often an art of surfaces: simple shapes, splotches of color over black print, uncompromisingly two-dimensional. He also cultivated a public persona that was famously glib and fey, as if enacting the glamorous shallowness of stardom. And so it is almost impossible to look at any of the prints in the Disaster Series without also thinking of his ubiquitous multi-colored celebrity portraits, the Soup Cans or catchy epigrams.

Altogether, it is tempting not to take the various scenes in the Disaster Series seriously, despite the images of death, destruction or, in this case a site of execution. The particular shock value of this print--in the bloody color, the repetition of the image (as if, perhaps, a different person has been executed and the corpse removed between the frames)--can be defused by association with the playful camp of Warhol's portraits, the repetitive banality of the soup cans, and his own cattiness. It may not be fair to judge one set of works by another, but to do so is to have an insight into the modern synthesis of the crass and the profound.

The affluent everyday lives and scandals of the famous, however prosaic, occupy much of journalism and the media, arguably at the expense of social issues of immediate moral weight that beg for attention. When these morally-freighted issues are seen through the prism of a glamorous but glib culture (where murderers become celebrities, when a horrific event gets less air time than what is being worn at a fashion show), the morality can drain away leaving only the aesthetics. The Death Chamber at Sing Sing, then, becomes another iconic reference rather than a literal seat of death. Warhol gives us the chance here to interrogate the aestheticizing of misery, and in particular the technology and suffering of human execution.

There is also a chilling and peculiar absence: where are the missing bodies--of the executed, the executors, of the victims? This piece does not seem to be an indictment or vindication of the death penalty as much as it is a concession that the aesthetics of this act cannot account for the dead bodies.


Created in 1963

Primary Source

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston