Andy Warhol's portrait of Mao Zedong marked the artist's triumphal return to painting after a short period during which he had concentrated almost exclusively on filmmaking. The florid strokes of green, yellow, and violet paint that streak across the surface of the work seem to be a physical manifestation of the pleasure he found in the rediscovery of the process of putting paint on canvas and mark a radical evolution of his earlier work through these colorful embellishments, adding a more energetic painterly touch to his earlier silkscreened images.
Possessing an prescient lifeline to public consciousness at a particular moment in time, Warhol's choice of Chairman Mao tapped into the historic easing of relations between the United States and China in 1972. Richard Nixon's visit to the communist nation in February of that year, in what the President dubbed "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 to the visage of Chairman Mao Zedong. Mining the myth surrounding the man synonymous with absolute political and cultural power, Warhol's choice of subject was nothing short of brilliant.
Andy Warhol's Mao encompasses the political and pop-cultural resonance of this event and combines it with the artist's signature palette of highly charged color, which results in a crescendo of contrasting greens, yellows, blues, and various hues of violet. Warhol elaborated his depiction of Mao by initiating expressive brushwork for the first time since his adoption of the silk-screening process in 1962. In the present work, this dramatic departure from the mechanically-produced flat surface effects of the silkscreening process, are especially evident in the broad, loose, gestural brushstrokes beneath the screened image. Coupled with his use of an official portrait of Mao as his source image, these subjective interjections of energetic expression add a touch of subversion in a collective regime that proscribed individual artistic creativity.
While Warhol was initially captivated by the idea of reproducing an image that had become ubiquitous in the American media, his choice of the Communist leader was an interesting twist on the artist's own investigations into the potency of images in modern culture. Ironically, both Mao and Warhol understood the force that an image could exercise, and just like the Chinese leader, Warhol's rendition of an authoritarian ruler was anchored in the media's power to create, canonize, and commodify personas for collective absorption. While Warhol's earlier logo-like representation of stars reflected the consumerist ethos of American capitalism and the 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; indeed, Warhol derived the silk-screen image for Mao from an official state portrait in the Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-Tung, a widely circulated reservoir of the leader's ideology.
Warhol was a resolutely non-political person, so it is doubtful that he was making any ideological statements in his decision to paint his images of Mao. In fact the idea for these works appears to have come from Bruno Bischofberger, as Bob Colacello recalled: "It began with an idea from Bruno, who had been pushing Andy to get back to painting, as had Fred [Hughes]. Bruno's idea was that Andy should paint the most important figure of the twentieth century." The first idea was to immortalize Albert Einstein who, in Colacello's words, "was responsible for both the technological richness and technological terror of life in this century." Andy had a different idea: "I was just reading life in Life magazine that the most famous person in the world was Chairman Mao. Shouldn't it be the most famous person, Bruno?" (B. Colacello & A. Warhol, quoted S. King-Nero and N. Printz (eds.), The Andy Warhol Catalogue Raisonne, Paintings and Sculpture 1970-1974, vol.03, New York, 2010, p. 165). Of the pantheon of people whom Warhol committed to canvas, his choice of Mao was one of his most inspired: "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 photograph reproduced in the Chairman's so-called Little Red Book, is probably the one most 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 threatening, or a parody or both" (K. McShine, Andy Warhol Retrospective, exh. cat., Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1989, p. 19).
By choosing the leader of the world's largest communist country as his first subject on returning to painting, the foremost chronicler of the consumerist society creates a distinctly Warholian fusion of East and West. By adopting Mao as his subject and using a flamboyantly updated version of his iconic silkscreen method of painting, Warhol suggests that the popularity of the Communist leader could be as much the product of highly effective marketing as the cans of tomato soup or Coca-Cola bottles that had been some of the artist's earlier subjects. Also, by mixing communist ideology and iconography with his highly commercial style, Warhol has shown himself a remarkably prophetic predictor of a political ideology that has propelled the Chinese economy into the extraordinary growth it has seen in modern times.