"You tell me it's the institution
Well you know
You better free your mind instead
But if you go carrying pictures of Chairman Mao
You ain't going to make it with anyone anyhow"
John Lennon/Paul McCartney, Revolution, 1968
"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 recognized by more of the world'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."--Kynaston McShine.
Painted in the aftermath of Richard Nixon's historic visit to China in 1972, Andy Warhol's Mao captures both the political and pop-cultural resonance of this groundbreaking event. The American President's visit to the communist nation in February of that year was described by Nixon himself as, "the week that changed the world," as it amounted to a diplomatic and public relations coup and was widely covered by the press around the world. Pictures of the visit were beamed into homes across the United States. Awash with images of an unfamiliar China, the American public quickly became accustomed with the distinctive face of Chairman Mao Zedong. Thus, by mining the myth that surrounded the man synonymous with absolute political and cultural power, Warhol's choice of subject was nothing short of inspired.
Using the official photograph of the Communist Party Chairman, Warhol added his own exuberant touches to what would have already been a heavily doctored image. Rendering Mao's portrait in majestic hues of purple, yellow and red, Warhol lavishes the painting with a series of animated brushstrokes. Here he used this expressive brushwork for the first time since his adoption of the silk-screening process in 1962. In the present work, this dramatic departure in paint handling is especially evident in the broad, loose, gestural brushstrokes beneath the screened image. Coupled with the anonymous silkscreen of Mao, these subjective interjections of energetic expression add a touch of subversion towards a collective regime that proscribed individual artistic creativity.
Mao was given by Warhol as a gift to John and Kimiko Powers, the Colorado-based collectors who amassed one of the most comprehensive collections of contemporary Pop Art in private hands. The couple adorned their home with the choicest selections of works by their Pop artist friends, not least of whom was Andy Warhol. His work typified the Pop Art aesthetic and marked the distance American art had traveled from the physicality, and perceived elitism, of Abstract Expressionism --the style that had reigned supreme over the previous few decades. Warhol had been working on his paintings of Kimiko Powers--his most ambitious commissioned portraits in a decade--when President Richard Nixon visited China in 1972, so it seems appropriate that the artist gave the Powers' this painting of the Chinese leader as a sign of his friendship.
Warhol's choice of Mao as a subject for his astute form of portraiture might, at first glance, have seemed an incongruous choice, especially given that the series of portraits that immediately preceded them featured such esteemed art world names as Philip Johnson, Irving Blum and Yves Saint Laurent. However, with this series, Warhol, in many ways, was turning his back on his celebrity-inspired portraits of the early 1970s and returning to the Pop inspired images of his early career. At the time he embarked on his paintings of Mao, the leader of the Chinese Communist Party, was one of the most reproduced images in the world. The origin of Warhol's choice of this picture has been traced back to a conversation between Warhol and the dealer Bruno Bischofberger who suggested the idea of producing a series of works depicting the most important figure of the twentieth century, initially suggesting Albert Einstein. Thinking about this proposition, Warhol is said to have replied, "Oh, 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 he be the most famous person, Bruno?" (A. Warhol, quoted in B. Colacello, Holy Terror: Andy Warhol Close Up, New York, 1990, p. 110-111).
Perpetuating his silk-screening technique with Mao was ideally suited to extending the notion of the "constructed-ness" of a public image of totalitarian power. Warhol rendered the artificiality behind the image via his garish palette; color lies on the surface allowing no visual penetration and reading as flat contrasts of abstract areas that coagulate to render an immediately apprehensible symbol of stylized reductiveness. However, rather than merely revealing the manipulation behind the original image, Warhol appeared to actively undermine its imperious gravitas and masculine strength. Indeed, executed in these bright colors and with his ruddy complexion, Chairman Mao appears more like a colorful clown than the image of the elder statesman and Father of the Nation that the original image intended to project.
Mao comprised Warhol's first major critically and commercially successful series following his premature "retirement" from painting in 1965 for the sole pursuit of film. Following his near-fatal shooting in June 1968, the artist began to rethink the direction of his creative energies, and returned to fine art. Mao marks a significant turning point in the artist's career, recuperating many of Warhol's concerns and techniques as a Pop artist in the 1960s, and inaugurating a fertile period of renewed vision in the artist's oeuvre.