Twenty Fuchsia Maos, Warhol's boldly colorful portrait of Chairman Mao Zedong from 1979, represents a climactic moment in the artist's series of portraits of the Chinese leader that he produced throughout the 1970s.
The present painting's format alludes to the wry composition of Warhol's 1963 homage to the Mona Lisa, Thirty Are Better Than One, which reproduces Leonardo Da Vinci's masterpiece thirty times. Both source images are among the most highly reproduced and recognizable images in the world; the Mona Lisa's image appears in books and on collectibles, and Warhol's painting appropriates the portrait which appeared as the frontispiece to the "Little Red Book," The Quotations of Chairman Mao. The title of Warhol's 1963 painting proclaims his artistic treatise and his celebration, rather than indictment, of the voracious appetite of American culture for mass consumerism and products. Whether these products were political figures, cultural icons or celebrities, ideologies or consumer goods, their mere availability was in Warhol's mind, a great equalizer.
"What's great about this country is that America started the tradition where the richest consumers buy essentially the same things as the poorest. You can be warching TV and see Coca-Cola, and you can know that the President drinks Coke, Liz Taylor drinks Coke, and just think, you can drink Coke, too. A Coke is a Coke and no amount of money can get you a better Coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking. All the Cokes are the same and all the Cokes are good. Liz Taylor knows it, the President knows it, the bum knows it, and you know it" (A. Warhol, quoted in K. McShine, Andy Warhol Retrospective, exh. cat., The Museum of Modern Art, 1989, p. 458).
Warhol initiated his Mao series as a commercial response to the growing American interest in China, stating: "Since fashion is art now and Chinese is in fashion, I could make a lot of money. Mao would be really nutty...not to believe in it, it'd just be fashion...but the same portrait that you can buy in the poster store. Don't do anything creative, just print it up on canvas" (A. Warhol, quoted in D. Bourdon, Warhol, New York, 1989, p. 317). Yet Warhol's resulting series, particularly Twenty Fuchsia Maos, is for him unusually political and more painterly than other works from this period. The fuchsia background is rendered with a free, somewhat expressionist brushstroke over which the portraits are screened. Twenty Fuchsia Maos offers the viewer a multitude of identical images of the Chairman from which to choose, as if lined up like cereal boxes at a supermarket. The bright pink coloration saturates the composition with a humorous, confectionary quality, transforming the controversial politician into an amusing, if ironic, bourgeois chariacature -a decidedly subversive gesture which certainly would have landed Warhol in prison in China.