NEW YORK – As Andy Warhol’s Mao comes to auction in New York, one has to wonder if the work, the very first in the artist’s iconic series, will go to a Chinese collection. It’s a question that many people have asked me over the last several weeks concerning the portrait that Warhol executed on the heels of Richard Nixon’s historical visit to China in 1972.
ANDY WARHOL, MAO, 1972. ESTIMATE UPON REQUEST.
During the Frieze art fair earlier this month, I previewed the painting at Sotheby’s London gallery. Painted in the hay day of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) and imposing, measuring 82 by 56 inches, this painting is particularly notable because Warhol painted and printed the screen himself without a studio assistant. In the picture, Mao is awash in flamboyant colors with pronounced rouge lips, contrasted with his signature steel blue Mao jacket and yellow cheek color. A few days later, “Warhol Unlimited” at the National Museum of Modern Art in Paris greeted me with another early Mao (Cat. Rais. No. 2281), on loan from Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Denmark and displayed against patterned Mao wallpaper.
INSTALLATION VIEW OF ANDY WARHOL’S MAO (1972; CAT. RAIS. NO. 2281) AT THE NATIONAL MUSEUM OF MODERN ART IN PARIS. PHOTO BY CHIU-TI JANSEN.
By painting the iconic Chairman, Warhol created and reinforced his own cult-following stature. Neither awe-inspiring nor iconoclastic, Warhol’s ambiguous Mao intuitively foreshadows the ensuing revisiting and recoloring of Mao’s historical legacy. This is why Warhol is still so relevant across different cultures in our time: he drew the striking parallel between the overpowering Mao cult and celebrity culture.
Warhol’s own visit and only visit to China in 1982, where he posed in front of the Tiananmen Square against an official monumental portrait of Mao, caused hardly any sensation in China. But his works opened a myriad of aesthetic possibilities for contemporary Chinese artists such as Zeng Fanzhi, Wang Guangyi, Xue Song, Li Shan, Ai Weiwei and Yu Youhan, who have created their own versions of new Mao iconography. For years they came to the sway of Warhol influences mainly through overseas travels and art books without seeing his original works in the territory of China.
WANG GUANGYI, UNTITLED, 1986. PHOTO: COURTESY OF ULI SIGG COLLECTION.
In the 2013 exhibition, Andy Warhol: 15 Minutes Eternal, the first comprehensive survey of Warhol’s works in China, the pop-art portraits of Mao were conspicuously missing from its Shanghai stop. The Global Times, a state-backed daily, published an op-ed titled “Warhol’s Maos Show Respect, Not Mockery,” explaining that the Mao works would be missing from the show because “they stretch official acceptance too far.”
XUE SONG, SHAPE (RED MAO), 1996. PHOTO: COURTESY OF ULI SIGG COLLECTION.
“This, from the Chinese point of view, is not hard to understand. Warhol's Maos, although adopted from the official ‘red book’ of Mao’s quotations, are provocatively colored. In some cases, it even looks like he is wearing makeup. This could easily be taken as disrespectful by the Chinese public, many of whom still have deep emotional ties to the Great Helmsman.”
Attributing it to the very different way Westerners and Chinese show respect, the author opined that “Warhol's colorful Mao could mean one thing to him and his Western audience, and quite another to the Chinese.”
REPRODUCTIONS OF ANDY WARHOL’S MAO PAINTINGS LINED UP A VILLAGE WALL IN CHINA. IMAGE BY LI MU, COURTESY OF LI MU AND SINA COLLECTORS (XINLANG SHOUCANG).
As if to put this theory to test, in 2013 Chinese artist Li Mu, under the auspices of the Van Abbemuseum in the Netherlands, lined up the walls of his hometown Chouzhuang, a remote village in the north of Jiangsu Province, with three large reproductions of Warhol’s Mao paintings and documented the responses of the villagers to the images. The villagers initially viewed the portraits with confusion and apprehension, wondering whether the red and blue versions are a deliberate affront to the former leader. Li’s father reportedly objected: “If this were during the Cultural Revolution, you'd have been shot to death for this!” With time, the Pop Art portraits seemed to have grown on the villagers and become part of their integrated environment. True to Warhol’s currency, controversies gained in a world of fame machines and enhanced the visibility of his works. By appealing to the villagers’ connection with a historical icon, Andy Warhol’s Maos became a conduit of introducing contemporary art to a rural Chinese community.
ANDY WARHOL, MAO, 1972. TEN SCREENPRINTS IN COLORS.
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