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. The present work belongs to a group of Mao paintings executed in 1973. 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 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 20 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 100 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 the television coverage, 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 Square 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.
The Mao series represents Warhol's first critically and commercially successful cycle since the mid-1960s and mark a significant stylistic turning point. As Gregory Battcock noted in his review of his Musée Gallièra, Paris show in 1974: "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. In tune with contemporaneous developments in painting during the early 1970s, namely the exploration of formal concerns in the work of artists such as Brice Marden and Robert Ryman, Warhol’s first major body of work since 1964 would subvert the mechanical uniformity of his 1960s production. 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 (Neil Printz and Sally King Nero, Eds., op. cit., p. 169). Significantly, such painterly flourishes, 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 ‘80s.
By channeling Mao through mechanistic swipe of his trademark screen print, and highlighting his features and iconic suit in brightest tones of gesticular paint, Warhol transmutes political significance: no longer does 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 nine years later in 1982. Herein, the telling choice of subject 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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