Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh





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Considering Crime and Punishment

Electric Chair 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.


Using Without 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 interpretations.”


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 Arcand.


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. 

Beyond Sandusky Street

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 80s.


“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 resources.”


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 here.”


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,” says Smith.


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.”





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