The present lot is a small-scale, but powerful example of a series of Andy Warhol Mao portraits that Warhol executed in a number of sizes. Mao tapped into the historic easing of relations between the United States and China in 1972. Richard Nixon's "ice-breaking" visit to the communist nation in February of that year, in what the president termed "the week that changed the world," amounted to a diplomatic and public relations coup in Cold-War history and was widely touted by the media. Awash in images of an unfamiliar China, the American public became quickly accustomed with the visage of Chairman Mao Tse-Tung. Mining the myth surrounding the man synonymous with absolute political and cultural power, Warhol's choice of subject was nothing short of brilliant.
Mao comprised Warhol's first major critically and commercially successful series following his premature "retirement" from painting in 1965 for the sole pursuit of film. Following his near fatal shooting in June 1968, the artist began to rethink the direction of his creative energies, and returned to fine art, executing commissioned society portraits in the early 1970s. Mao marked a significant turning point in the artist's career, reactivating many of Warhol's concerns and techniques as a Pop artist in the 1960s, and inaugurating a fertile period of renewed vision in the artist's oeuvre.
Committed to mining popular culture for his iconography, Warhol moved seamlessly from his earlier portraits of celebrities to that of a political figure and authoritarian ruler. In doing so, he indirectly but incisively exposed the power of mass media in the creation, canonization and commodification of personas for the purpose of collective absorption. While his simplified, logo-like representation and repetition of glamorous stars reflect the consumerist ethos of American capitalism and the advertising and publicity machinations that underpinned it, Warhol's Mao reveals the centrally controlled propaganda apparatus of Chinese communism. Mao's physiognomy was propagated via billboards, posters and pamphlets throughout China as a means of stating his omnipresence as both a benevolent and fearsome leader, casting a watchful eye over his subjects. Having engineered the persecution of intellectuals and artists through the Cultural Revolution, and extinguished the potential Chinese equivalents of Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor, Mao essentially replaced such figures and turned himself into the communist counterpart of a Pop icon. Indeed, Warhol derived his silk-screen image of Mao from an official state portrait that graced a book entitled Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-Tung, a widely circulated reservoir of the leader's ideology.
Mao comprises a number of firsts for Warhol. Its success paved the way for of a number of portraits and political subjects including heads of state such as Lenin, 1986, as well as a number of communist and fascist symbols such as Hammer and Sickle, 1976, and Skulls, 1976. Inaugurating a new painterly expressiveness and scale that would continue through the remainder of his output, the Mao series is a masterpiece of great historical importance in Warhol's career.