Andy Warhol’s Mao portraits are a masterful compilation of the artist’s conception of fame, picture repetition and the political weight of power through image. Both the original image and Warhol’s re-interpretation are held in some of the world’s most visible institutions, from the Tiananmen Square in China to the collections of The Metropolitan Museum of Art and The Art Institute of Chicago. The present work, rendered in crisp primary colors and with prominent strokes by the artist, is an excellent example of one of the most famous images in both art and political history.
At 12 by 10 inches, the present work is an intimate example from the series. Warhol overlays the silkscreen print of Mao with sunflower yellow, duck-egg blue and crimson red, adding another layer of red paint after the canvas was stretched to add to its vibrancy. The Mao portraits typically group color to emphasize the components of the figure, assigning a separate color to the body, head and background. After marking out these three key features, Warhol then inverts his prior precision to become more free-form, breaking the color assignments. In the present lot, large green swathes follow the curve of Mao’s forehead, before sweeping across his eyes and chin. The resulting paint appears graffiti-like, placing the work simultaneously in the realm of figurative painting and of subversive art. The work is thus excellently balanced between restraint in adhering to the figurative form, and spontaneous, freer strokes, a disruption by the artist of an otherwise standardized portrait.
Marilyn Monroe’s death in 1962 would inspire Warhol’s foray into celebrity image and culture, and he would go on to work with the image of other stars such as Elvis Presley and Elizabeth Taylor. He would also begin to explore the nature of celebrity political culture with portraits of Jackie Kennedy after the Kennedy assassination in 1963. The mass-media coverage created an outpouring of images of Jackie that Warhol would repurpose and reconfigure in his own commentary on fame. This would have been a perfect grounding for the Mao portraits if not for Warhol’s decision to prematurely retire from painting to wholly commit to the pursuit of film: “Paintings are too hard. The things I want to show are mechanical. Machines have less problems. I’d like to be a machine. Wouldn’t you?” (A. Warhol, quoted in D. Bourdon, Warhol, New York, 1995, p. 140).
For the next five years, Warhol would produce nearly 650 films, when he was near-fatally shot in 1968 by the writer and actress Valerie Solanas. The exposure from his intense commitment to the world of film and resulting media coverage from his own shooting inspired Warhol to recalibrate his creative energies, and he returned to the celebrity portraits of earlier in the decade. Legendary dealer and close friend Bruno Bischofberger had encouraged this return to painting, and suggested he choose the “most famous figure of the twentieth century” as his subject, nominating Albert Einstein for the purpose. Warhol, ever with his figure on the pulse, 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?” (A. Warhol, quoted in B. Colacello, Holy Terror: Andy Warhol Close Up, New York, 1990, p.110-111).
Chairman Mao had indeed flooded the world’s media in 1972, after Richard Nixon’s “ice-breaking” visit in February of that year, a historic easing of tensions between the two countries that the president termed “the week that changed the world”. Mao’s totalitarian grip over his own country, in which he controlled his official image, was now expanded to the world’s media, an ingenious choice on Warhol’s part that encapsulates his masterful grasp of star power, political culture and the sustained relationship between fame and media: “If Warhol can be regarded as an artist of strategy, his choice of Mao as a subject – as the ultimate star was brilliant. The image of Mao taken from the portrait photography reproduced in the Chairman’s so-called Little Red Book, is probably the one recognized by more of the earth’s population than any other – a ready-made icon representing absolute political and cultural power. In Warhol’s hands, this image could be considered ominously and universally threating, or a parody or both” (K. McShine, Andy Warhol Retrospective, exh. cat., Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1989, p. 19).
The source image that Warhol silk-screen printed for this series was commissioned by Chairman Mao as the first page of his printed doctrine: the “Little Red Book”. The print-run was estimated at over 2.2 billion, making his face one of the most extensively printed portraits in history. The particularly prolific nature of the Mao image throws into light Warhol’s command of images with popular resonance, incorporated into his body of work through the addition of saturated coloring and whimsical brush-stokes. His disruption of the mechanical with the hand-made, and debasing of the elite image, is a superb example of the Pop master at the height of his powers.