Considering Crime and Punishment
Images Spark Public Debate
Museums in the 21st century are entering new
territory and The Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh is leading the way.
While in the past museums were seen simply as repositories of culture, now
they are now being seen as vital forums for public discussion and debate.
“We’re shifting more towards the notion of museums as
places for dialogue and discussion,” says Jessica Arcand, assistant
director for Education and Interpretation at The Warhol. “The ideas of
ownership and authority are changing. We’re moving toward a more open-ended
way of thinking in terms of interpretation and working with communities to
explore and create culture together. Museums are being pushed to take risks
and become more immediately relevant to the community,” she says.
In terms of risk and relevance, The Warhol made an
impact with its 2001-2002 exhibition Without
Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in
America. Although controversial, featuring photos of African Americans
who had been hanged by mobs in the first half of the 20th
century, the project was successful because it brought the local community
together for public dialogue, emotional reflection, and historical
perspective. A local advisory panel as well as national experts addressed
various related topics, and The Warhol’s education staff, together with
community facilitators, led school and group discussions.
Sanctuary as a model and coinciding with recent discussion, The Warhol,
together with a number of other organizations and a local advisory
committee, is presenting a project on capital punishment surrounding an exhibition
of Andy Warhol’s Electric Chair prints and paintings.
Andy Warhol was not specific about his intent when he
created the electric chair images, and The Warhol does not intend to
address the specifics of the death penalty in its approach to the subject.
“One of our goals is to move away from polarized narratives,” says Arcand.
“Instead, we want to generate dialogue around the general issues of crime
and punishment in contemporary American society.”
On display will be a suite of 10 screen-prints and fewer
than a dozen smaller prints and paintings of an electric chair. Upon the
images of this deadly device Warhol imposed vivid colors, including bright
oranges, yellows, and pinks. The actual object Warhol used as source
material was a photograph of the electric chair in New York’s Sing Sing
prison, which put to death Julius and Ethel Rosenberg on June 19, 1953.
“The chair is iconic in terms of punishment,” Arcand says.
Great debate has always surrounded the Rosenberg’s trial
and execution, which took place at the height of the “Red Scare” led by
Senator Joseph McCarthy. Although
the couple was convicted of giving information about the atomic bomb to the
Soviet Union and spying for the Russians, there are many who believe the
Rosenbergs were victims of anti-Semitism and communist hysteria.
These arguments for and against the Rosenbergs and the
death penalty were prominent news stories during Warhol’s most creative
period as an artist. No definitive answer exists, however, as to whether or
not his works are gestures of protest.
“While the images themselves are incredibly provocative
and very culturally laden, they can’t be pinned down to a particular
position,” says Arcand. “Some people say Warhol had a flip, non-political
attitude, yet nevertheless here he was doing electric chair paintings, race
riot paintings, and other work with both violent and difficult subject
matter. Was there a socio-critical intent or was he just holding up a
mirror to all aspects of American society – from Coca-Cola to capital
punishment? “Yes and no,” Arcand says. “The nature of just holding up a
mirror to reflect who we are can be a provocative and critical act. The
work’s power is in its ambiguity or ability to generate diverse
Whatever Warhol originally meant by his Electric Chair series, as a
contemporary conversation starter the paintings can work in any ideological
environment. “Because of their multiple readings, they are a very good
place to begin dialogue to engage all different perspectives, both liberal
and conservative, on the issues surrounding capital punishment,” says
According to Arcand, this kind of community initiative,
where museums act as forums for civic dialogue, is relatively new. Recently, the American Association of
Museums issued a report “Mastering Civic Engagement: A Challenge to Museums” in order to
encourage its members to embrace a new understanding of their educational
dimension and the role museums can play in the larger community.
The exhibition will continue through October, and the
dialogue generated will be gathered to develop an arts-based civic dialogue
curriculum with national distribution.
This project was
supported, in part, by the Animating Democracy Initiative, a program of
Americans for the Arts, funded by The Ford Foundation.
The Andy Warhol Museum Sends its Art to
Asia and Europe
John Smith, in his new position as assistant director
for Collections and Research at The Andy Warhol Museum, has been busy this
spring getting two shows ready to travel to Japan and beyond.
Opening on May 29 at Tokyo’s Parco Gallery is an exhibit
of 131 works by Andy Warhol that have rarely been seen in Asia. Featured at
the Parco, a gallery that’s connected to a large department store in the
tradition of many exhibition spaces in Japan, will be a retrospective of
Warhol’s work as a printmaker. Works from the 1960s include screenprints of
Cow, Marilyn, and Campbell’s
Soup II. The 70s will be represented by Mao and several other images on paper. Camouflage, a portfolio of eight screenprints made in 1987 will
be included, along with Grace Kelly
and Jane Fonda. “Warhol worked in
the print medium his entire career,” notes Smith.
In addition there will be a small overview of the
artist’s photography: 50 images that include photo booth strips from the
60s, Polaroids from the 70s, and black and white celebrity photos from the
“There will also be a group of paintings from the 1980s
that are not as well-known,” adds Smith. “We pulled from our collection
things that audiences in Japan would be less familiar with. It’s the kind of show that only The
Warhol could do, because we’re the only place that has such a wide range of
Another show assembled at The Warhol that’s also now on
the move is Strange Messenger: The
Work of Patti Smith. Currently the exhibition is at the Contemporary
Arts Museum in Houston, and will remain there through the middle of June.
After Houston, it travels to the Parco Gallery in Tokyo, and then will
finish the year at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia. In
early 2004, Strange Messenger
will go to Europe, where it is booked at three major exhibition spaces—the
Haus der Kunst, Munich, Germany; Palazzo Diamanti, Ferrara, Italy, and
Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam, Netherlands.
“Always in the back of my mind was the hope that Strange Messenger might go to one or
two additional venues,” says Smith, who curated the exhibition for The
Warhol. “But the show has taken on an amazing life beyond the exhibition
Although these two shows will be seen outside of
Pittsburgh, they are still the responsibility of The Warhol’s North Shore-based
staff. “Because these exhibitions were organized at The Warhol, the museum
is responsible for every aspect of the shows at all of these venues,” Smith
explains. These duties include conservation work, cleaning, reframing,
packing, shipping, insurance, installation, and the ongoing monitoring of
the condition of all the works. “It’s a big effort on the staff’s part,”
The effort brings rewards, however, for the City of
Pittsburgh as well as The Warhol. In each of these venues, the press materials,
brochures, gallery texts and everything else credit The Andy Warhol Museum,
Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh, and the city of Pittsburgh. “There’s a
tremendous amount of excitement for these shows and it’s always very
gratifying to witness the response." says Smith. "We’re reaching
thousands of people beyond Sandusky Street, and it’s confirmation that what
we’re doing has enormous value beyond Pittsburgh.”