Andy Warhol, Orange Disaster #5 (1963)
Suicides, car crashes, assassinations, race riots and executions. These gruesome events and their hapless, often anonymous subjects were the flipside of the fame that Andy Warhol sought to capture in his depictions of famous figures such as Elvis, Marlon Brando, Chairman Mao and the ill-starred trio of 1960s demigoddesses—Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor and Jackie Kennedy.
Warhol christened these paintings his “Death and Disaster” series, in opposition to America’s bubblegum dream of sunny celebrity. Of the hundreds of electric chair-themed works he made between 1962 and 1965, Orange Disaster #5 (1963) is by far the most alarmingly hair-raising.
Stacked vertically, this cautionary, flame-colored, acrylic-on-canvas semaphore repeats over and over again—15 times to be exact—like a lurid nightmare. It is one of more than a dozen electric-chair works currently on view in the survey show “Andy Warhol: Dark Star” at the Museo Jumex in Mexico City, brilliantly curated by Douglas Fogle (until 17 September).
The chair depicted in Orange Disaster #5 is based on a specific press photograph: it pictures the device used in 1953 execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, the American couple killed by the U.S. government at Sing Sing after their conviction for passing atomic secrets to Russia.
But Orange Disaster #5 does not feature the spies’ likeness. Instead, the painting portrays the forbidding image of “Old Sparky”, as the prison’s gaolers ironically christened the government’s death machine. Pictured inside a cavernous chamber, the murderous contraption stands alone like an emancipated Hannibal Lecter, emboldened by one additional detail: a sign in the canvas’ right hand corner that reads “SILENCE”.
“When you see a gruesome picture over and over again,” Warhol told ARTNews critic Gene Swenson in November 1963, “it doesn’t really have any effect.” Yet Orange Disaster #5 belies that statement. If the painting’s 15 repeating images perfectly mimic the numbing reiteration of death in the modern media, Warhol’s composition also dramatically emphasizes the electric chair’s vacancy, creating an emptiness that remains mesmerizing to this day.
The looping, acid-colored image suggests a phenomenon that has held steady across the ages, from medieval depictions of the plague to dark-web beheading videos—namely, that the death of others is the ultimate form of voyeurism.
Warhol once remarked: “everything I do is connected with death”. Nowhere does his morbid preference for the spirit of Thanatos over Eros, with its recurrent considerations of image overload in our media-saturated culture, ring truer than in Orange Disaster #5.