Slashed through with rich brushstrokes in glamorous shades of pink, purple and orange, Andy Warhol’s Mao situates the divisive politician firmly within the pantheon of Warhol’s celebrities, while equally challenging the revolutionary power of the ultra-proliferated image. Works from this series typically group color to emphasize the components of the figure, assigning a separate hue to torso, head and background. After marking out these key features, Warhol then inverts his precision in favor of more free-flowing swathes, pulsing in and out of the initial formula and elevating the image to the realms of both figurative painting and subversive art. The resulting paint appears graffiti-like, excellently balancing adherence to the figurative form with a refined spontaneity that intelligently diverges from the standard portrait template. In the present work, Chairman Mao’s familiar yet haunting visage emerges from a lyrical, hand-painted background in expectation of absolute control; however, Warhol’s perceptive placement of fuchsia paint across the Chairman’s neck acts almost as a physical restraint against the oppressive call set to emanate from the subject’s vocal chords. The recognizable uniform of Mao’s administration is only visible beneath Warhol’s gleeful intervention, further juxtaposing the former’s stringent measures in the name of culture with the artist’s expert commentary on the nature of icon status.
At 12 by 10 inches, the present work is an intimate example from the collection of Barbara Allen de Kwiatkowski, a well-known New York tastemaker and dear friend of Warhol. Known affectionately in her circles as Babs deK, the influential muse enjoys even more monikers in the personalized inscription on the reverse of the painting, acquired from Leo Castelli a few years after it was painted: “Barbara Baaabaa Brab Merry Christmas Andy 76”. In addition to spending evenings at the famed Studio 54, Babs and Warhol partnered on Interview magazine, dubbed the “crystal ball of Pop” for its progressive look into the lives of the creatives populating the scene in 1970s New York. Together through a fruitful friendship, the artist and collector captured and preserved their cultural zeitgeist, outlining the trajectory of both global and uniquely American history.
Specifically American, the untimely death of Marilyn Monroe in 1962 inspired Warhol’s initial foray into celebrity image and culture, sustained through images of other stars including Elvis Presley and Elizabeth Taylor. He began 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).
Over the next five years, Warhol produced 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 propelled 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 encouraged this return to painting, and suggested Warhol choose the “most famous figure of the twentieth century” as his subject, nominating Albert Einstein for the honor. Warhol, ever with his finger 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, pp. 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 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, rendering his face one of the most extensively printed portraits in history. The particularly prolific nature of the Mao image throws into stark relief Warhol’s command of images with popular resonance, incorporated into his body of work through the addition of saturated coloring and whimsical strokes. As a testament to the artist’s erudite disruption of the mechanical silk-screening process with hand-made touches and debasing of the elite image, the present work is a superb example of the Pop master at the height of his powers in relationship with a similarly stylish icon of pop culture.