Galerie Bruno Bischofberger, Zurich
Gian Enzo Sperone, Turin
Private Collection, Italy (acquired from the above in 1973)
Sale: Sotheby's, London, Contemporary Art, 29 June 2000, Lot 42
Acquavella Fine Arts, New York
Acquired directly from the above by the present owner
Las Vegas, Bellagio Gallery of Fine Art, Andy Warhol Celebrities, 2003
New York, Gagosian Gallery, What's Modern?, 2004, p. 71, illustrated in colour
New York, L&M Arts, Andy Warhol: Mao, 2006, no. 6, illustrated in colour
Athens, Byzantine and Christian Museum, Warhol/Icon: The Creation of Image, 2009, p. 38, illustrated in colour
Gianni Mercurio, Ed., The Andy Warhol Show, Milan 2004, no. 24, illustrated in colour
Neil Printz and Sally King Nero, Eds., The Andy Warhol Catalogue Raisonné: Paintings and Sculptures, Vol. 3, 1970-1974, New York 2010, p. 206, no. 2303, illustrated in colour
The Maos are celebrated as Warhol’s first major body of work after the 1964 series of Flowers. Following his premature ‘retirement’ from painting declared at an exhibition of the Flowers in Paris, the mid-to-late 1960s saw the artistic focus shift towards filmmaking, music, performance and other entrepreneurial projects such as Interview magazine: in accordance with these activities, Warhol’s public persona began to rival the fame and influence of the celebrities idolised in his work. In 1968 a near-fatal assassination attempt by radical feminist author and aspiring playwright Valerie Solanis, dramatically triggered a period of deep reflection and re-evaluation, further prolonging a major new body of paintings. Coinciding with the very first portrait commissions during the early 1970s, Warhol began contemplating the theme of his painterly reprise. Bob Colacello recalls the genesis of the Mao paintings in a conversation between the artist and his gallerist in 1972: “It began with an idea from Bruno Bischofberger, who had been pushing Andy to go back to painting… Bruno’s idea was that Andy should paint the most important figure of the twentieth century” (Bob Colacello, Holy Terror: Andy Warhol Up Close, New York 1990, p. 111). Albert Einstein was suggested for the impact of his Theory of Relativity in both precipitating “technological richness and technological terror”; however by this point, Warhol had already conceived of Mao Zedong: “That’s a good idea. But I was just reading in Life magazine that the most famous person in the world today is Chairman Mao. Shouldn’t it be the most famous person, Bruno?” (Warhol quoted in: ibid.).
The idea to paint Mao had taken seed in Warhol’s imagination ever since Nixon’s televised announcement in July 1971 of a sanctioned visit to China. Following the end of the Chinese Civil War in 1949, America’s refusal to recognise the new communist government drew an iron curtain between China and the US that lasted over twenty years. In an effort to thaw Sino-American relations and in a tactical move to help resolve the Vietnam War, Nixon - famously hardline in his anti-communist policy – was to be the first President to visit the People’s Republic of China. Every part of the historic visit was highly orchestrated and planned; confident in the visual power of television, Nixon ensured that the whole event was choreographed as though it were a TV extravaganza. Resembling a media circus, almost one-hundred journalists were invited to cover the trip, with the most dramatic events televised live in time for the morning and evening news bulletins. That Nixon was up for re-election in 1972 was a fact not lost on journalists who commented upon the heavily propagandist nature of the event. Despite such obvious strategic motivations however, Nixon’s highly atypical scheme ironically laid the groundwork for reshaping the global balance of power; his radical steps to assuage anti-American sentiment in the East are today considered a landmark of twentieth-century foreign policy.
Far from apolitical, Warhol undoubtedly held anti-Nixon political sympathies – the very same year he started the Mao paintings Warhol ran a suite of screen prints in contribution to the Democratic opposition’s campaign; beneath a demonic looking green-faced Nixon ran the slogan ‘Vote McGovern’. Following Nixon’s trip in February 1972, Warhol was quick off the mark; work on the first Mao painting began the very next month. The choice of subject was thus timely and suited Warhol’s trademark vacillation between detachment and censure. Undoubtedly motivated by the extremity of media coverage, particularly televisual, Warhol’s controversial validation of Mao the celebrity icon and consumer brand announced his return to painting with the fan-fare Bischofberger had duly hoped for. As stated by Colacello: “Andy wasn’t apolitical; he was ruthless. Mao was a brilliant choice, and Andy’s timing was perfect. The Mao paintings, when they were exhibited a year later in New York, Zurich, and Paris, were greeted with universal acclaim. They were controversial, commercial, and important, just like the man they portrayed and the man who painted them. And they were all about power: the power of one man over the lives of one billion people” (Ibid.).
Moving seamlessly from mining celebrity and popular culture for his source images, Warhol's juxtaposition of the mythic, deified image of the Communist leader within an art form that fetishized consumerist objects is wonderfully subversive. Warhol's source image derives from an official portrait of the authoritarian ruler which followed the canon of official Soviet portraiture of Stalin and Lenin. Unlike the latter, however, Mao's image, which was seen to embody the revolutionary spirit of the masses, stares directly at the beholder and was exhibited prominently above the Tiananmen Gate where, in 1949, Mao had announced the founding of the People's Republic of China. Symbolising perpetual surveillance, the image was ubiquitous in every schoolroom, shop front and public institution across the country and was reproduced on the first page of Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-tung, more commonly known as Mao's 'Little Red Book', which was widely disseminated during and after the Cultural Revolution as a mandatory citizens' code. With a print-run estimated at over 2.2 billion, this made Mao's stern yet benevolent face one of the most extensively reproduced portraits in history. Fascinated by the ubiquitous proliferation of this single image, Warhol would have undoubtedly picked up on affinities between the mass-media derivation of his own work and the propagandist role of Mao’s official portrait. Possessing no definitive author, the anonymity of Mao’s portrait possesses a mass produced aesthetic, a quality that led Warhol to remark to David Bourdon: "I've been reading so much about China. They're so nutty. They don't believe in creativity. The only picture they have is Mao Zedong. It's great. It looks like a silkscreen" (Warhol quoted in: David Bourdon, Warhol, New York 1989, p. 317). As Neil Printz and Sally King Nero have noted, in drawing this parallel between the aesthetic of Communist propaganda and his own assimilation of the visual traits of ubiquitous mass production, the artist seemed to have sensed that “Mao’s portrait was, in effect, already a Warhol” (Neil Printz and Sally King Nero, Eds., The Andy Warhol Catalogue Raisonné: Paintings and Sculptures, Volume 3, 1970-1974, New York 2010, p. 166). To Warhol, Mao’s image demonstrated all the characteristics of a brand; a readymade icon that consecrated the cult of personality and its attendant consumer value endemic to his own capitalist culture.
Where Warhol’s 1960s work depicting Marilyn Monroe or Jackie Kennedy sought to expose the power of the mass-media in simultaneously idolising and commodifying figureheads of popular culture, this corpus exposed the potency of the Chinese state-controlled propaganda machine to apotheosize a powerful political persona. Mao’s visage thus proved a fascinating and fertile dichotomy for Warhol: on the one hand the power of the Capitalist free-market paradigm, driven by the tabloid press and the mechanics of advertising, on the other, its direct antithesis, the Communist paradigm which sought absolute political and cultural control by the same means. With these works, Warhol uncovers the shared goals of both societal models: consumerist advertising and the centrally controlled propaganda apparatus of the People’s Republic to commodify personality for the purpose of collective absorption. Between 1972 and 1973 Warhol produced a total of 199 works depicting Chairman Mao. Alongside five graduated series of paintings – which diminished in size and accordingly increased in number – Warhol created a suite of drawings and portfolio of prints. Ranging from the colossal Giant Maos intended to rival the scale of the iconic portrait hung above Tiananmen gate, through to the miniature portraits measuring 12 by 10in., Warhol conceived of a body of work to plausibly suit all tastes and budgets (Ibid., p. 167). Subversively triumphant, Warhol transforms the official portrait used for the dissemination of Communism into a commodity of the Capitalist economy, no more consequential than a can of Campbell’s Soup.
First exhibited at the Musée Gallièra in Paris in 1974, the Mao series represents Warhol's first critically and commercially successful cycle since the mid-1960s and mark a significant stylistic turning point. As Gregory Battcock noted in his review of the Paris show: "In the new works the combinations of the splashy, expressionist elements with the precise silkscreen images almost tend to cancel one another out or, at least, refute the precision of the screens" (Gregory Battcock, 'Andy Warhol: New Predictions for Art', Arts Magazine, May 1974, p. 35). Unlike his earlier ineluctably flat silkscreen paintings, Mao is much more painterly in style with its loose brushwork of hand-painted acrylic hues. In tune with contemporaneous developments in painting during the early 1970s, namely the exploration of formal concerns in the work of artists such as Brice Marden and Robert Ryman, Warhol’s first major body of work since 1964 would subvert the mechanical uniformity of his 1960s production. Far from the deliberate and mask-like, the freely fleshed out fields of colour extol a gestural painterliness. As Printz and Nero have identified, these works intriguingly embrace broad strokes and calligraphic flourishes of the brush to echo the coalition of text and image indicative of traditional Chinese scroll-paintings (Neil Printz and Sally King Nero, Eds., op. cit., p. 169). Significantly, such painterly flourishes, bold chromatic juxtapositions, and expressive treatment would play a decisive part in defining the look of Warhol’s portrait production: having developed concurrently, the Maos thus not only represent the breakthrough subject for Warhol’s 1970s production, they also form the very core of the expansive canon of portraiture that would flourish throughout the 1970s and ‘80s.
By channelling Mao through mechanistic swipe of his trademark screen print, and highlighting his features and iconic suit in brightest tones of gesticular paint, Warhol transmutes political significance: no longer does representing a symbolic threat to the American dream, rather Mao has been assimilated and introduced into the vacuous circuit of fashion and cult of celebrity. Resting on a knife’s edge, Warhol’s ambivalence between complicity and criticism, apathy and consequence is truly definitive in the Mao paintings – a controversial standpoint wittily enacted in the photographs that document Warhol’s pilgrimage to China and the Forbidden City ten years later in 1982. Herein, the telling choice of colour palette distinguishing the present work undeniably affirms an ironic subversion: throughout the Cultural Revolution, Mao had all but extinguished popular culture and substituted himself in the place of the stars of stage and screen; here, by lavishing upon Mao the same treatment bestowed on American icons of Pop, Warhol ironically completes the prophecy.
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