The People’s Republic of China’s state portrait of Chairman Mao is undoubtedly one of the most iconic images of the Twentieth Century. Almost 40 years following his death, Mao Zedong’s visage still benevolently pervades the expanse of Tiananmen Square; in a similar turn, Andy Warhol’s own daring and incisive portraits of China’s first communist leader today pervade the most prestigious art institutions across the globe. With rouged lips, peachy skin and a navy tunic set against a backdrop of pale blue, the present work is the very first Mao painting designated in The Andy Warhol Catalogue Raisonné. In total, Warhol executed an ambitious 199 Mao paintings in 5 set scales across 5 individual series between 1972 and 1973. This painting, executed between March and May 1972, is from the very first group of works, and belongs to a corpus of only 11 paintings (cat. nos. 2277-2287) each measuring an immersive 82 inches in height. Of the other 10 paintings in this cycle, half are known to reside in some of the most prestigious public and private collections worldwide including the Froehlich Collection, Stuttgart (cat. no. 2278); Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Humelbaek (cat. no. 2281); The Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh (cat. no. 2283); The Brant Foundation, Greenwich (cat. no. 2284); and the Fundació Suñol, Barcelona (cat. no. 2286): a list which provides a clear indicator of the precedential and creative importance of this foundational cycle. Conceived at the time of President Nixon’s historic trip to China in February of 1972 and executed only weeks after his return, the present work, and its inaugural counterparts, is a masterpiece of symbolic manipulation. This series announced Warhol’s return to painting with tremendous force and conceptual brilliance; uniting infamy with celebrity, reducing the politically germane to the glossy levity of fashion, and marrying the communist multitude with the capitalist market, the Maos represent Warhol at his very best.
Described by the catalogue raisonné as the 'early Mao' paintings, these portraits are remarkable within the series at large for being executed entirely by Warhol himself. Without the aid of a studio assistant and without commissioning an external company to print his canvases (as he would with later works in the series) Warhol took on the technical challenge of wielding a single screen spanning in excess of 6 feet. Dragging a squeegee loaded with printing ink across this expansive screen and onto canvas would undoubtedly have been tricky; indeed, the particular aesthetic of this series takes its character from the irregularities of Warhol’s one-man manufacture. Starting with the present work which possesses a chromatic brilliance and a screen of astonishing clarity, as the sequence progresses a pattern of uneven squeegee pressure accumulates whilst the screen print register increasingly fades. As Neil Printz and Sally King-Nero have noted, these “fade-outs” are most likely owing to the fact that the 11 early Mao paintings were executed in a single run without cleaning the screen of ink clogs and build-ups. (Sally King-Nero and Neil Printz, eds., The Andy Warhol Catalogue Raisonné: Paintings and Sculpture 1970-1974, Vol. 03, New York, 2010, p. 196) The very last work in this cycle is testament to such a hypothesis; found in Warhol’s studio after his death, cat. no. 2287 solely consists of a ghost-like single black silkscreen print on an unpainted raw canvas ground, and undoubtedly marks the end of Warhol’s print run. In addition to this progressive 'fading-out,' the sequence narrates a cumulative experimental treatment of the painted surface. Departing from the mask-like precision of his 1960s portraits of Marilyn or Liz, Warhol becomes increasingly loose with his brushwork in this series, even making painterly flourishes and in-fills after the screen’s application – a feat heretofore unthinkable within Warhol’s striving for factory-like mechanization. This comes to a head in cat. no. 2286 whereby the order of execution has been entirely reversed: the screen, which seems to have been printed directly onto raw canvas, appears beneath a chromatic patchwork of expressionistic paint. This series thus radically broke with Warhol’s hard-edged 1960s facture and instead invited the artist’s hand and a register of brushstrokes into the works’ core aesthetic. Archetypally prescient yet ambivalent in its meaning, it has been suggested that Warhol adopted this 'painterliness' in response to, or in critique of, developments in contemporary painting; for example the Neue Wilden in Germany, whose key proponents Georg Baselitz and Anselm Kiefer had just begun to forge a renewal of painting as a product of gestural expression. In the Maos Warhol reduced expressionistic brushwork to a painterly codex and juxtaposed it with the machine register of his iconic screen print methodology. However, far from an all-over painterly abandon (an approach that would increasingly emerge in the late 1970s and 1980s works) these brushy fields are for the most part contained within the parameters of Mao’s portrait. The present work is a remarkable example of this balance between precise control and free-flowing gesture: it possesses a screen that is perhaps the most clear and regular of the entire suite of 11 paintings and a wonderful clarity in the application of colored fields – particularly the modulation of the skin tonalities and full brightness of the pink lips under which Mao’s mole takes on the appearance of a Marilynesque beauty spot. Allied with a biting political awakening, this series heralded the dawn of a new stylistic impetus: Warhol's application of a markedly expressionistic hand set the precedent for his latter oeuvre, acting as the spearhead and anchor around which Warhol’s colossal corpus of Society Portraits would proliferate.
Between 1972 and 1974 the 10 fully realized early Mao portraits were part of a highly successful promotional program of exhibitions across Europe, which included the series’ debut in 1972 with Zehn Bildnisse von Mao Tse-Tung at the Kunstmuseum Basel. The following year these 10 paintings would travel to the Galerie Galatea in Turin, however it was not until 1974 that the series as a grand and holistic project would be exhibited together for the very first time. Set within the grandiose environs of the Palais Galliera, Musée de la Mode la Ville de Paris, Andy Warhol: Mao delivered a spectacular display of Warhol’s first body of new paintings since his Flowers of 1964. Taking inspiration from his 1966 exhibition at Leo Castelli in which the gallery was famously covered in cow wallpaper, Warhol plastered the walls of the Musée Galliera with Mao wallpaper – a repeated graphic taken from the suite of Mao drawings onto which he painted purple ellipses over each face. Alongside the 10 early Mao paintings, he exhibited a further 3 series of works including 4 colossal Giant Mao canvases measuring 177 by 137 inches, 11 large 50 by 42 inch canvases, and 42 smaller 26 by 22 inch canvases. Exhibited in sequence abutting each other and hung at a level just above the viewer’s eye-line, the Mao portraits magnificently inhabited and transformed the tremendous architecture of the gallery into an extravaganza of color and political daring. Echoing the omnipresence of Mao’s portrait in schools, the workplace, and in public spaces in China, Warhol took on the inherent seriality of Mao’s likeness and subverted it. Displaying incessant repetition, yet with each work possessing individual schemas of gestural candy color, this exhibition delivered the full force of Warhol’s Mao project by reducing an irreproachable image power to the level of surface decoration. As Warhol himself commented on using Mao’s image: “Mao would be really nutty… not to believe in it [Mao]. It’d just be fashion.” (the artist cited in Ibid., p. 166)
Following Warhol's premature ‘retirement’ from painting declared at an exhibition of the Flowers in Paris, the mid-to-late 1960s saw his 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 idolized in his work. In 1968 a near-fatal assassination attempt by radical feminist author and aspiring playwright Valerie Solanas, dramatically triggered a period of deep reflection and re-evaluation, further prolonging the absence of a major new body of paintings. Coinciding with the very first portrait commissions during the early 1970s, Warhol began contemplating the topic of his painterly reprise. Bob Colacello recalled 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?” (the artist cited in Ibid.)
Proving the artist’s finely tuned ability to draw on the sociopolitical had lost none of its power, the Mao paintings arrival in 1972 evinced a retort to American foreign policy: in rapid response to the highly orchestrated media frenzy that was Richard Nixon’s visit to China in 1972, Warhol’s series of paintings subversively turned China’s communist leader into capitalist commodity. Famously critical of Nixon, who prior to his conciliatory efforts towards China was known as an anti-communist red-baiter, Warhol appositely took on the most prescient political dialogue on the global arena. Although he had broached the American political arena a decade earlier with his Electric Chair and Race Riots, both initiated in 1963, it was not until 1971 that Warhol began to contemplate the contentious international concerns at the forefront of the global political consciousness and headlining the Western media. Signaling an ambitious return to his breakthrough medium, this series is remarkable in its major portrayal of the only political figure ever painted of Warhol’s own volition.
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 recognize 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 was famously left-wing (as can be gleaned from the fundamentally democratic core of Warhol’s career and choice of subjects – a coke is a coke no matter who you are) and was known to hold anti-Nixon 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 present paintings as part of the very first Maos began the 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.)
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. Symbolizing 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.
The depiction of power through a sovereign body, and the subversion of such iconography, has a lineage as long as art history itself. The power of images to construct ideas and communicate ideals has been manipulated in portraits of power dating back to the busts of the Roman Emperors. From the glorious pomp and majesty of royal portraits through to those of officials in acquired positions of power, state images idealize, manipulate perceptions, and assert the right to dominion. However, there are those examples in art history which are remarkable for their disruption of such codes of power. For example Diego Velázquez’s Portrait of Innocent X (1650): as elucidated so powerfully in the work of Francis Bacon, in Velázquez’s portrait Pope Innocent X comes off as a power hungry dictator rather than a benevolent father; an undercurrent that cuts right through to Innocent X’s reputation for war-mongering. Or take Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres’ magisterial Napoleon I on his Imperial Throne (1806): a portrait so over-stuffed with imperial symbols and art historical tropes that in its unbridled effort to present Napoleon as the rightful sovereign ruler strains to hold itself together; Napoleon appears as a doll dressed up and playing a role, a pretender that doesn’t fit the livery of power he has adopted. Although coming from a critical and external standpoint, Warhol’s subversion is just as ambiguous and complex as those examples in art history: Warhol unravels the internal architecture of power behind Mao’s image via a similar internal reworking and in so doing works loose the binary opposition between capitalism and communism.
The juxtaposition of this mythic, deified image of the communist leader with an art form that fetishized consumerist objects is wonderfully seditious. Fascinated by the ubiquitous proliferation of this single image, Warhol would undoubtedly have picked up on affinities between the mass-media derivation and seriality of his own work, and the propagandist role of Mao’s official portrait. The pervasiveness 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." (the artist cited in David Bourdon, Warhol, New York, 1989, p. 317) As Printz and 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.” (Sally King-Nero and Neil Printz, eds., Op. Cit., p. 166) To the artist, 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 idolizing 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 uncovered 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 portfolios 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 10 inches, Warhol conceived of a body of work to plausibly suit all tastes and budgets (Ibid., p. 167). The resulting body of work transformed Mao’s 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.
Resting on a knife’s edge, Warhol’s ambivalence between complicity and criticism, apathy and consequence is truly definitive in the Mao portraits – a controversial standpoint wittily enacted in the photographs that document Warhol’s pilgrimage to China and the Forbidden City ten years later in 1982. By channeling Mao through the mechanistic swipe of his trademark screen print, and highlighting his features and iconic suit in brightest tones of gesticular paint, Warhol transmuted political significance: no longer representing a symbolic threat to the American dream, Mao became Warhol’s newest player on the vacuous fashion circuit and member of the celebrity circus.
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