Marking the historic thawing of relations between the United States and China, Warhol's Mao taps into the political and cultural zeitgeist of the 1970s. Executed the year after President Nixon's 1972 diplomatic visit to China, this painting demonstrates Warhol's uncanny ability to examine the nature of celebrity and take the pulse of the national psyche. Already famous for painting iconic silkscreen portraits of Marilyn Monroe, Elvis and Elizabeth Taylor, in the early 1970s the Zurich-based art dealer and Warhol collector, Bruno Bischofberger suggested to Warhol that he produce a series depicting the most important figures of the twentieth century. Keen to continue his examination of the nature of fame and celebrity, Warhol turned to the Chinese leader as the subject of his fascination, "I've been reading so much about China. They don't believe in creativity. The only picture they ever have is of Mao Zedong. It's great. It looks like a silkscreen" (A. Warhol, quoted by D. Bourdon, Warhol, New York 1989, p. 317). Warhol chose as his source an image of the Communist Party leader taken from his famous 'little red book,' Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-Tung. With Mao suppressing all other imagery and presenting his own visage as the dominant image in China, he practically assumed the status of ultimate Pop icon in Warhol's eyes. The resulting series is one of Warhol's most prolific, and a remarkable addition to his pantheon of cultural figures with which he defined his career as the preeminent Pop artist of the period.
Rendering Mao in his uncompromising palette of vibrant colors, Warhol gesturally brushed sweeps of 'Communist Red' to denote the Chairman's trademark jacket. In doing so, Warhol decontaminates an image that had become a symbol of fear, rendering it inoffensive by highlighting its ubiquitous nature. By taking Mao, the great anti-capitalist symbol and turning him into a Warhol icon, the artist has taken the political figure's strategy of using visual ubiquity to maintain order and turned it on its head, ultimately presenting him as the ultimate commodity of Pop. With Warhol's series truly capturing the political consciousness of the period, art critic Carter Ratcliff noted in his review of the Mao series in Paris at the Musée Galliera in February 1974, "having arrived at the upper levels of the consumer world--those haunts of celebrities where every other face is familiar from the nightly news and the pages of People magazine--Warhol opened his art to an icon from China, a nation dedicated to eradicating whatever vestiges of bourgeois consumerism might linger in its citizenry. Idealistic and uncompromising, at least in his public pronouncements, Mao seemed very different from the economic and political leaders of what he called the 'decadent' West. Warhol showed uncanny acuteness in introducing the Mao image into his art at a time when the artist himself was just coming to enjoy, full-scale, the benefits of Western 'decadence'" (C. Ratcliff, quoted in V. Bockris, The Life and Death of Andy Warhol, London 1989, p. 372).
But even in his complete definition of how the Chinese should dress, think and act, Mao had more in common with the strategies of the capitalist advertising machine that encouraged all of America to drink Coca-Cola or eat Campbell's Soup. As Chinese contemporary artist Xu Bing explains, "Mao is actually a big contemporary avant-garde artist....Andy Warhol learned a lot from Mao....Compare Mao's pop culture to Andy Warhol's pop culture. If you had the experience of the Cultural Revolution in China you can understand authentic pop culture. Everybody had to read the same book and do the same thing. If you look at the Andy Warhol photo where he is standing in front of the big portrait of Mao in Tiananmen Square, then you can understand how Andy Warhol's art works with Mao's ideas about the masses, the people and pop culture" (X. Bing, quoted in 'Interview with E. Pearlman September 2007', in X. Lin, Children of Marx and Coca-Cola: Chinese Avant-Garde Art and Independent Cinema, Hawaii, 2010, p. 6).
Warhol's Mao series subsequently paved the way for Warhol's other political subjects including Lenin (1986), Hammer & Sickle (1976), and Skulls (1976). His imaging of Mao has also gone on to inform a generation of Chinese artists from the 1990s who were able to finally consider the iconography of this didactic period in their history alongside the recent influx of Western consumer advertising imagery.
Synthetic polymer and silkscreen ink on linen
Collection of Celeste and Armand Bartos
Signed twice and dated twice 'Andy Warhol 1973' (on the overlap)
Andy Warhol , 20th Century, Paintings, United States of America, Post War
Los Angeles, Margo Leavin Gallery, Andy Warhol: Mao, My Mother, and Other Friends, April-May 1975.
POST-WAR & CONTEMPORARY ART
26 x 22 in. (66 x 55.8 cm.)
S. King-Nero and N. Printz, eds., The Andy Warhol Catalogue Raisonné: Paintings and Sculpture 1970-1974, vol. 03, New York, 2010, pp. 217 and 224, no. 2328 (illustrated in color).
Leo Castelli Gallery, New York
Knoedler & Company, New York
Andy Warhol, New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner