(Douglas Crimp, “New York Letter,” Art International, vol. 17, no. 2, February, 1973, p. 46)
Evincing the same commanding presence and indelibly charged graphic force of the state portrait which inspired it, Andy Warhol’s extraordinary 1972 masterwork Mao is among the most historically potent, culturally significant, and incomparably iconic paintings of the Twentieth Century. Fixing the viewer with a gaze both utterly penetrating and entirely opaque, Warhol’s universally recognizable portrait of Chairman Mao commands our full attention with a provocative bravura that rivals that of the artist’s quintessential Pop images of Campbell’s Soup Cans and Marilyn Monroe. With vivid scarlet lips, illuminated by a radiant golden glow against a richly saturated backdrop of variegated blues and teals, the present work is a singularly vibrant example from the artist’s acutely limited number of large-scale Mao paintings; although Warhol executed an ambitious 199 Mao paintings in 5 set scales across 5 individual series between 1972 and 1973, this painting belongs to the very first group of only 11 paintings, executed between March and May 1972 and each measuring an imposing 82 inches in height. Of the other 10 paintings in this rarefied corpus, half are known to reside in some of the most prestigious public and private collections worldwide, including the Froehlich Collection, Stuttgart; the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Humelbæk; the Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh, among others. Uniting infamy with celebrity, reducing the politically germane to the glossy levity of fashion, and marrying the communist multitude with the capitalist market, Mao exemplifies the provocative bravura and incisive social commentary of Warhol at his most brilliant.
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, announced Warhol’s return to painting with tremendous force and conceptual brilliance. Following Warhol's premature declaration of his ‘retirement’ from painting, boldly announced at an exhibition of the Flowers in Paris, the mid-to-late 1960s had seen his artistic focus shift towards filmmaking, music, performance and other entrepreneurial projects; indeed, it was not until the early 1970s that Warhol began contemplating the topic of his painterly reprise. Recalling the genesis of the Mao paintings in a conversation between the artist and his gallerist in 1972, Bob Colacello reflects: “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.” Albert Einstein was suggested for the impact of his Theory of Relativity in both precipitating “technological richness and technological terror,” to which Warhol wryly replied, “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 Bob Colacello, Holy Terror: Andy Warhol Up Close, New York, 1990, p. 111) Remarkably, Warhol executed the initial Mao portraits without the aid of either a studio assistant or external printing service, instead confronting the technical challenge of wielding a single screen spanning in excess of 6 feet completely alone. Despite the extraordinary scale of the Maos, Warhol covers the immersive canvas of the present work with brilliantly chromatic pigment, enhancing the extraordinarily precise screen with virtuosic dashes of electrifying color. In its arresting juxtaposition of expressionistic brushwork with the machine register of screen print methodology, the present work is a remarkable example of Warhol’s precise balance between exacting control and free-flowing gesture; evincing a screen of unparalleled clarity, most notable in the precise delineation of the Chairman’s crisp ivory collar and subtly modulated facial features, Mao stands as an irrefutable testament to Warhol’s remarkable technical abilities as a painter. Amongst the other members of the original Mao cycle, the present work heralded the dawn of a new stylistic impetus, setting the precedent for Warhol's application of a markedly expressionistic hand in the paintings that would follow.
Warhol’s subsumption and subsequent re-appropriation of communist symbolism into his legendary Pop vernacular – both metaphorical, as in Mao, and physical, as in his later totemic renderings of the Soviet Hammer and Sickle– profoundly refocused the artist’s ground-breaking aesthetic energies on the political realities of his time. Emphatically testifying to Warhol’s finely tuned ability to articulate the central sociopolitical and cultural tensions of his day, the Mao paintings' arrival in 1972 evinced a cutting retort to contemporary 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 July 1971, during a televised announcement of Nixon’s sanctioned visit to China, that Warhol began to contemplate the contentious international concerns at the forefront of the global political consciousness and headlining the Western media. Following Nixon’s trip in February 1972, Warhol was quick off the mark, initiating work on the initial Mao’s, including the present work, the next month. Remarking upon the controversial nature of Warhol’s mockery of Nixon’s grandiose political posturing and simultaneous validation of Mao as celebrity icon, Colacello reflects: “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.)
Derived from the People’s Republic of China’s official state portrait of Chairman Mao, undoubtedly one of the most iconic images of the Twentieth Century, Mao enacts a captivating conflict between the propagandistic fervor of communist China and the quintessentially American production of Warhol’s celebrated Pop oeuvre. The juxtaposition of this mythic, deified image of the revered Chinese leader with an art form that fetishized consumerist objects is irresistibly seditious, eloquently transforming the distinguished portrait into an ironic Warholian emblem par excellence. 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; remarking upon the pervasiveness of Mao’s portrait, Warhol once remarked, "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) 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. A truly magnificent work from Warhol’s most politically potent and universally iconic series, Mao is a profound and enduring testament to Warhol’s legacy, not only as the singular figurehead of American Pop, but as the consummate history painter of the modern age.
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