Executed in the aftermath of Richard Nixon's historic 1972 visit to China, Andy Warhol's mao captures both the political and pop-cultural resonance of this groundbreaking event. Using the official photograph of the Communist Party Chairman taken from Mao's Little Red Book, Warhol added his own exuberant touches to what would have already been heavily doctored image. Rendering Mao's trademark dark jacket in vibrant 'communist' red, Warhol lavished the rest of the picture with a serious of animated brushstrokes that swathed Mao's image in rich tones of purple and yellow. Warhol extended his depiction of Mao by initiating these expressive brushwork for the first time since his adoption of the silk-screening process in 1962. The use of these subjective interjections of energetic expression add a touch of subversion towards a collective regime that proscribed individual artistic creativity.
Against the background of the Cold War and Nixon's visit to China, the figure of Mao was one of the most reproduced images in the world. The origin of Warhol's choice of this picture has traced back to a conversation between Warhol and the dealer Brubo Bischoftberger who suggested the idea of producing a series of work depicting the most important figure of the twentieth century, initially suggesting Albert Einstein. Thinking about this proposition, the artist is said to have replied, 'Oh, 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 he be the most famous person, Bruno?' (A. Warhol, quoted in B. Colacello, Holy Terror: Andy Warhol Close Up, New York, 1990, p. 110-111).
Warhol's 1973 portrait of the Chinese leader Mao Zedong, was part of a group of paintings that Andy Warhol gave as a personal gift to Jon Gould. Gould was one of the few people to whom Andy allowed himself to become truly close and he became a central figure in his life during the early part of the 1980s. Drawn to his athletic, handsome looks and his projected straight persona, Warhol hoped that Gould would introduce him into his circle of influential friends he had made through his job at Paramount Pictures. As Warhol noted in a diary entry from April 1982, 'Picked up Jon to go to the park. By accident ran into his boss Barry Diller who was with Calvin Klein, David Geffen, and Steve Rubell out together for a walk. It was sort of a shocking moment. Everybody looked guilty for something' (A. Warhol, 'The Andy Warhol Diaries', 1989, p. 440). Initially, he also hoped that Paramount might buy and adapt his Popism memoir but the friendship grew and the pair soon became increasingly close for a number of years.