Andy Warhol's Mao (Lot 1021) series is considered his most important statement of the 1970s. After years of a self-imposed hiatus from art-making, Warhol read in the press that Chairman Mao was the most famous living person, inspiring him to return to his studio and add the Great Helmsman to his pantheon of "superstars", alongside his then already famous portraits of Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley, and Elizabeth Taylor. Warhol's choice of Mao as a subject had nothing to do with any great political intention, but because of the larger-than-life status Mao held in his own country and abroad. Warhol felt that Chinese propaganda and its egalitarian aesthetics -- the standardization and repetition of imagery and message -- was effectively a revolution in Pop Art, akin to what he himself had been doing in his own Factory.
Warhol was fascinated by China. In his typically droll manner, Warhol once commented that "every painting should be the same size and the same colour so they're all interchangeable and nobody thinks they have a better painting or a worse painting. And if the one 'master painting' is good, they're all good" . According to photographer Christopher Makos, who traveled with Warhol to China in the early 1980s, "Andy was enthralled by China. It was a perfect match. Here was the man who had painted the soup can over and over in multiples. And here we were in the nation of multiples, where everybody wore the same kind of suit." The series' debut exhibition at the Musee Galliera in Paris included the repetition of the Chairman's visage in a variety of media. Evoking the mass-production of Mao's image in communist China, the exhibition included large-, medium-, and small-scale silkscreens on canvas, and even wall-paper, to reinforce its exuberant impact, mixing the uniformity of China's visual culture with the buoyant visual assault of Western consumerism.
Among the portrait series were portfolios of screenprints, produced in sets of ten with an edition of 250 as well as the smaller and more rare edition of 50 Artist Proof sets on Beckett High White paper. Each screenprint was individually stamped by the studio, and many sets were ultimately split up as they passed from collector to collector. A complete set is an incredibly unusual find, especially from the smaller artist proof run, and on the occasions when they have appeared on the market, they have been quickly snatched up by discerning collectors who recognize their quality and rarity, sometimes selling for over the US one million mark. The set featured here has been in the same private collection since it was acquired directly from the artist over 35 years ago. Numbered 10 in the edition of 50, its silkscreen stencils are especially sharp; kept in its original Warhol studio box, the individual screenprints have never been framed and, like a rare manuscript, the set has only occasionally been removed from its box for viewing. As a result, the colours are also especially vibrant and "true" to their original making. Indeed, its display in Christie's Hong Kong exhibition will mark one of the few occasions these particular prints have been viewed in person.
Each sheet has an extraordinary level of detail, showing the meticulous attention Warhol gave to his craft: a different stencil would be required for each colour layer, for separate areas of matte or glossy pigment, as well as for the gestural, apparently "freehand" flourishes that Warhol adds on each sheet. The Beckett High White paper also has distinct colour absorption properties, resulting in a surprisingly textured and thick layer of colour resting on its surface. Some sheets show a heavy layer of pigment, the colour passing generously through the silkscreen stencil, the "strokes" of its application apparent in the surface of the sheet, while others offer a sketchier application of colour, further giving the viewer greater proximity to the craft of silkscreening. These variations of the portraits and occasional areas of undyed paper is intentionally reminiscent of the mass-produced posters of Mao found throughout China in the 1970s. But the apparent mechanical sameness of the images is undercut by Warhol's maximal use of the medium, blurring the lines between the conventional distinction of painting and printmaking. The lurid, electric fields of colour at times emphasize a more generous smile and exude a kind of warm humanity, while others reinforce an aloof and stately persona. In some cases the figure is slightly off-center, or at a marginally different angle, offering further shades of meaning and interpretations.
Each set of ten features the same, immediately recognizable, implacable portrait, Mao's firm gaze and almost imperceptible smile as enigmatic as that of the Mona Lisa. Warhol's screenprints in the 1960s had emphasized their mechanical sameness; in the 1970s, beginning with the Mao series, Warhol began to add painterly flourishes in both the application of the pigment and in the actual stencil, fundamentally emphasizing the artist's authoring of the chosen image. A complete set of the screenprints more closely re-enacts the visual impact sought by the artist: a dizzying visual field inundated with the same repeated, seemingly unchanging image. But by adding juxtaposed swaths of colour to each sheet, Warhol further highlights the artist's ability to illicit an emotional reaction, to subtly manage the mood or character of the subject through the most discreet alterations and choices. As a result, Warhol walks an extraordinary conceptual tightrope: He relies on a mechanical process to create images that are purportedly "all the same", but stretches his medium to its limit to create painterly effects. Where the propaganda machine had, ironically, sought to obfuscate the means of production, Warhol reveals not only the "labour" of manufacturing an image, but its artistry as well, reminding us of the artist's critical authority over his or her subject through discreet aesthetic calculations.
In many ways, Warhol's series of Mao portraits have proven to be more prophetic and iconic than he could have imagined. Long after the death of both artist and his subject, Mao's image has become symbolic of the incredible rise of the promise of China itself as an economic force in the capitalist arena - including the art market. The inclusion of this rare Warhol portfolio in the Evening Sale marks the first time a work of Western Contemporary art has been offered in Christie's Hong Kong, seeming to fulfill all that Warhol had anticipated about the art world and art-making. Understanding the nature of media and celebrity, he paved the way for the possibility of a high art that is both popular and conceptually sophisticated. If celebrities and consumer brands could become trans-national phenomenon, why couldn't contemporary art? Warhol was famously and sincerely captivated by the seemingly egalitarian aspects of capitalism: "the richest consumers buy essentially the same things as the poorest. You can be watching TV and you see Coca-Cola, and you know that the President drinks Coke, Liz Taylor drinks Coke, and just think you can drink Coke too ". While mocking mainstream consumer taste, Warhol's practice highlights the fundamental challenge facing artists today: In an increasingly interconnected world, saturated with images, icons, and products, the artist's ability to insert himself meaningfully into that field becomes essential. Contemporary art forms have become globalized, but the ways in which artists engage these forms remain distinct to their own circumstances, cultural and aesthetic histories, and subjective positions. With Mao, Warhol found a way to extend and deepen his long exploration of glamour and celebrity. The arrival of Warhol in Christie's Hong Kong sale then signals not only the enormous influence Warhol has had on contemporary art, but suggests the multiplicity of visions and voices that have brought us to a truly global contemporary art, reaffirming the ways in which the innovation and creativity of Asian artists have brought them to the forefront of the contemporary art world.