Commissioned by Bruno Bischofberger for an exhibition at his gallery in Zürich in 1980, 30 Multi-coloured Maos, is a rare masterpiece from Andy Warhol's hugely important Reversals series. Signalling a new period of productivity in the artist's work, the Reversals alongside the contemporaneous Retrospectives introduced a new conceptual vigour to Warhol's artistic practice. Taking his cue from the tradition of artists who have adapted, varied and transformed the art of their predecessors, Warhol, in an act of post-modernist brilliance, expropriated material from his own now infamous repertoire of images, transforming his classic Pop iconography with surprising painterly techniques and compositional reconfigurations.
With the silkscreen process now honed to perfection, 30 Multi-coloured Maos, 1980, is one of the best examples from this powerfully post-modern body of work, which pivots on the Duchampian notion of the readymade. Warhol had already appropriated images from Fine Art once before, in his 1963 serial painting depicting Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa, provocatively re-titled Thirty are Better than One. Warhol's interest in Leonardo's masterpiece, however, was less about its art historical significance and more to do with its celebrity status. Exceptionally released from the safekeeping of the Louvre for a brief visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art that year, the press furore surrounding the visit of this normally immovable painting drew hoards of people curious to experience its alluring enigma. Little more than fifteen years later, Warhol's own paintings and celebrity status were so aggrandised that his instantly recognisable images befitted the same treatment as the Mona Lisa.
The present work revisits the images of the Chinese Communist leader painted by Warhol in the early 1970s. Instantly recognisable throughout the Western world thanks to a press-fuelled Cold War preoccupation with the Eastern superpower, Mao Tse Tung's official portrait was a widely disseminated icon of Communism. Warhol's 1973 series of Maos showed the artist's fascination with the flipside of the coin of celebrity: public notoriety. In the present work, however, the emphasis is less on the celebrity of the sitter and more on that of the artist himself, less a depiction of the dictator and more a reflection of Warhol's own artistic past.
In 30 Multi-coloured Maos, Warhol starts by broadly brushing skeins of paint onto a length of canvas, in places dragging his fingers over the paint while still wet to create a surprisingly varied and gestural ground anathema to the insistently flat surfaces of his 1960s canvases. In an ironic nod in the direction of his Abstract Expressionist forefathers, this lushly drippy surface in which we feel the physical presence of the artist bears no relation to the superimposed silkscreen image and is subversively drained of meaning. While the earlier Maos were also executed in a brushy style, the coloured grounds nonetheless corresponded to the silk-screened images with different coloured zones being demarcated for the face, the jacket and the background. In the present work, however, the relationship between the printed and hand-painted elements is completely arbitrary, a sardonic indictment of the expressive potential of the brushstroke. Liberating it from its loaded Abstract Expressionist associations, Warhol breathes new life into the brushstroke and in the present work we are left to simply admire the sumptuous, coalescing ripples of pigment.
Set against this glossy, richly textured acrylic ground, Warhol screens six rows of five Maos. The lustrous black silkscreen ink clings to the ridges of acrylic under-painting to create a uniform, unbroken and delicate aesthetic unity. As David Bourdon describes: "Warhol's Reversals recapitulate his portraits of famous faces... but with the tonal values reversed. As if the spectator were looking at photographic negatives, highlighted faces have gone dark while former shadows now rush forward in electric hues" (David Bourdon, Warhol, New York 1989, p. 378). In the present example, not only is the image printed in negative, but it is also reversed with Chairman Mao looking right instead of left. Through negative printing, Warhol achieves a ghostly dematerialisation of his subject, with the shadowy figures now reduced to their recognition value, their memory value alone. Although still recognisable and legible thanks to its common currency, Warhol's manipulations neutralise the power of the original image to convey meaning. In places his eyes, once dark, shine out like candy-coloured beacons in a witty parody of the original's all-seeing gaze. Compositionally recalling the serial images of soup cans from the 1960s, through repetition Mao's debunked image loses its potency as it is lined up in rows like the mundane products of bourgeois consumerism. In a flash of Warholian genius the Mao's individuality, the uniqueness on which his authority depended, is swept from beneath him. In a subversive tour de force, 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 soup or box of Brillo.
Having reanalysed his own pictorial inventions in the Reversals series, Warhol devoted much of his 1980s creative practice to exploring the creative practices of his predecessors. In a broad range of compositions, Warhol directly lifted imagery from artists as varied as Cranach, Ucello, Munch and de Chirico, subjecting each to his levelling silkscreen technique which both alienates and transforms the image into a quintessential Warhol. The present work stands at the genesis of Warhol's appropriation based paintings and is important not only because it questions the notions of authorship, authenticity and originality in art but also the because it probes the legitimacy of Warhol's own artistic code.
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