Executed in 1973, Mao is a colourful picture of the Chinese leader that shows Warhol continuing to revel in provoking and shocking his audience. To the Americans of his day, Warhol's Mao broached a taboo just as much as his earlier Death and Disaster pictures. In 1972, President Nixon had made a diplomatic visit to China, signalling renewed and better relations between the two countries. Thus when Warhol appropriated his portrait the next year, he was taking an image that was not merely Pop or popular, but that was politicised, filled with potential meaning and controversy.
Warhol, by emblazoning Mao in a picture, celebrating the leader of a Communist nation, one of the greatest antagonists of the United States, is subversively presenting a subject as anti-American as can be. But reading Warhol is never simple, and a converse interpretation is all too evident. In Mao, Warhol can be seen to be celebrating the success of Mao as an image, as something that has successfully embedded itself in the public consciousness to the same extent as a picture of Marilyn or a can of Campbell's soup. Warhol is paying tribute to the success of Brand Mao, doffing his cap, one Pop art genius acknowledging the success of another.
In this, Warhol appears to celebrate Mao as an image but all the more pointedly to mock him as a man: this incongruous large-scale Pop celebration of the founder and leader of Communist China is filled with the Pop colours of the 1970s, with painterly effects which add a lively sense of fun and a striking visual force to the image. This humorously subverts the staid and sober propaganda images of Chairman Mao that had themselves flooded the popular consciousness. This new treatment is as un-Communist as can be, and the fact that he has been depicted by Warhol, the capitalist artist par excellence who at that time was creating many glamour portraits of the stars and moguls of his era adds to this sense of irony. Mao has been jazzed up, presented as a new and exciting commercial entity.
These converse interpretations of Mao exist paradoxically and simultaneously. Like Mao himself, this picture reveals an image and yet reveals little of the artist's intentions. Despite the active painterly and gestural participation evident in the brushstrokes - perhaps slyly and obliquely mocking the exertions of the Abstract Expressionists - Warhol remains elusive, his intentions unknown. Mao conveys much information in the simplest terms of content, yet teasingly conveys nothing, remaining opaque as to its stance or politics. This picture, like all the greatest Warhols, remains as inscrutable as the face of Mao himself.