“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.” (Bob Colacello, Holy Terror: Andy Warhol Up Close, New York, 1990, p. 111)
Following an eight-year hiatus, Andy Warhol announced his return to painting in 1972 with a series of daring works after the iconic official portrait of Mao Zedong. Proving the artist’s finely tuned ability to draw on the sociopolitical had lost none of its power, the Mao paintings evince 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 communist leader into capitalist commodity. Preceding the Giant Mao paintings of 1972 which rivalled the scale of the colossal portrait hung in Tiananmen Square, the present work belongs to the largest size of Mao paintings executed in 1973. Notable for its exceptionally sumptuous brushwork and brilliant primary colors of cobalt blue, crimson, and vibrant yellow, the present work is an exceptionally radiant example from the series. The sun-like orb highlighting Chairman Mao’s face offsets the dominant red delineating his famous tunic – a national uniform adopted as an Eastern counterpart to the Western business suit for its symbolism of proletarian unity. Although Warhol 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 he 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. No other example from the series possesses the chromatic vibrancy, confident painterly flourish and radical injection of narrative of the present work. Allied with this political awakening, these works herald the dawn of a new stylistic impetus: Warhol's application of a markedly expressionistic hand set the precedent for his latter oeuvre.
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 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 any return to 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 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?” (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 recognize the new communist government drew an iron curtain between China and the United States 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.
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. 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. 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. 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. 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.
Subversively triumphant, Warhol transformed 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 marks 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. Far from the deliberate and mask-like, the freely fleshed out fields of color 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. Significantly, such painterly embellishments, 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 1980s.
By channeling Mao through the mechanistic swipe of his trademark screen print, and highlighting his features and iconic suit in the brightest tones of gestural paint, Warhol transmuted political significance: no longer 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 color 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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