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Laurie Anderson Here: Welcome to Andy's World
March 14, 2008

Laurie Anderson

Eye Level had a chance to catch up with performance artist (that's short for singer, composer, poet, filmmaker, inventor of unusual instruments, instrumentalist, and photographer) Laurie Anderson ahead of her scheduled talk on March 15 at 4:30 pm in the McEvoy Auditorium at SAAM/NPG (8th and F Streets NW). Anderson will be speaking about Andy Warhol's iconic image Little Electric Chair as part of the American Pictures Distinguished Lecture Series.

EL: What were the criteria for selecting the artwork? It's so arresting, like a held breath.

LA: I think that's a good way to put it because it's about time being suspended, and if there is a place where time gets suspended it's prison. I'm going to talk a little about the time period and ramble around a bit. I really think we live in Andy's world now. A lot of the things he was really interested in are everywhere. It's uncanny. His ideas about death, time, fame: it's almost as if he's defined our entire culture. Look around at American Idol, at popular culture— it's on so many levels.

If there's time I'm going to talk about a project I did with prisons. One of the main attractions of using Electric Chair is the recent statistic that one in a hundred Americans is now in jail. If you look around at the surveillance culture we live in now, a lot of the things Warhol was interested in are connected, particularly between fame and death, and media. Media permeates the world and Warhol really understood media. He was a genius about that.

I don't want to make my talk too formal, although I do have a theory that I'm going to propose, but I can't tell you about it now. I hope that we'll have time for a question-and-answer period, because there may be some questions about this theory. It's a pretty strange one.

Do you remember the first time you came upon this image, or those from Warhol's Death and Disaster series?

The car crashes. I remember that series in a much more baroque way. I remember twisted metal. I don't remember something that looked so minimal as this one, so stark. And this is the chair from Sing-Sing.

When I search the images, there's an ultraviolet one, and another in greyscale, and another very bright, etc.

This was a whole series of silkscreens in incredibly cheerful colors. That's another thing I'm going to talk about: why would he do that? What was behind the palette? Warhol talked a little about how combining something so gruesome with something so wallpapery would call attention to the grimness of it. But in fact, I think it did the opposite. I don't think it made it more horriying to people. You kind of go, "Oh, what is that? Oh, It's an electric chair."

Did it strip away the emotion?

One of the things he did in serial terms with the Death and Disaster series was to neutralize [emotion] through multiplying it. That was the standard Warhol theory: if you show a painful image a thousand times it hurts a lot less. But, in fact, it started in a way not hurting at all because a lot of people don't look at what he was painting. I'm going to try and get back to the subject matter, to talk about what it meant to paint money or a soup can, rather than how they look. I'm interested in pop stuff, but he took on really major themes in American culture—prisons, media, time—and made significant comments about them.

When I started thinking about what Warhol did, it was so out of sync with how he was recognized in his lifetime, because he wasn't. When he died no museum had bought a Warhol painting. I believe there was one at MOMA that was given to them.

Really? Because it seems like Jackie or Marilyn are everywhere.

They are totally everywhere, and they are a hundred million dollars! Who knows what he would have thought of that. He was often seen as a kind of joke with his glasses and his polaroids and his silly hair and his A to B Philosophy . He was on the gossip pages. But, in fact, there he was dealing with all these incredible things and making amazingly iconic images. I find that fascinating. I'm not trying to give Andy his due, but to come up with other ideas that are associated with his work. 

Did you ever meet Warhol?

I did. I went over and did a taped conversation that was part of Interview magazine. It was super bland. Everything was on the blandest possible level. It was really eerie.  He was really protective. From the things that I know through Lou [Reed] who knew him pretty well, this "gee-whiz" stuff was part of the way he approached the world. I wasn't getting dissed or anything.

The Electric Chair is a silent image and the word silence appears over the door as well. Do you hear anything when you view it? Is there a soundtrack you associate with this image?

I'm going to be talking about silence quite a lot tomorrow. Just having that one word there is super chilling. It doesn't explain anything about the image, but I'll be using this to spin off what it means in other parts of his work and how it relates to death, and other artists who use silence in various ways.

There are so many things going on in that image. It's almost like all of Warhol's imagery is in that one thing, except for maybe the sexy stuff. And the gossipy stuff. It's not very sexy. It's kind of Factory: the minimalism and the use of the single word as well as the color and the replication. It's a painting that has so much going on in such a simple setting; it's almost frightening.

The American Pictures Distinguished Lecture Series is sponsored jointly by SAAM, NPG and the C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience at Washington College.

Posted by Howard on March 14, 2008 in Lectures on American Art


I'm sorry to have missed Laurie's lecture. Will the transcript or audio be available online?

Unfortunately, Lawrence, we were unable to record it.

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