“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 photography reproduced in the Chairman’s so-called Little Red Book, is probably the one 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, Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1989, p. 19).
President Nixon’s 1972 visit to China – a visit which thawed the diplomatic isolation between the two countries – allowed the American public, for the first time in over twenty years, to view images and television broadcasts of China. The historic easing of tensions led to rising media coverage of the Chairman, named by Life magazine as the most famous person in the world and quickly picked up by Warhol as his next subject.
Following his foray into film, Warhol returned to painting, energized by the reinvestment in the topic of celebrity (recalling the paintings of Marilyn, Jackie, and Elvis from the decade before). The notion of fame, however, is nearly eclipsed by the political power of the world leader, adding a layer to Warhol’s already masterful compilation of image repetition, mass media, and popular culture. Warhol made an astonishing 199 silkscreen paintings of Mao in 5 different sizes, the largest scaled at 177 x 137 inches, and the smallest here, at 12 x 10 inches. A sunny yellow, duck-egg blue, and crimson are overlain by the silkscreen print of Mao, the gestural strokes of green and surrounding swathes of red revealing Warhol at his most painterly. Serendipitously described by Henry Kissinger’s assistant, Winston Lord, who later became the United States Ambassador to China, “Mao was speaking, as he usually did, in simple brush strokes…” (W. Lord in an interview with C. Stuart Kennedy and N. Bernkopf Tucker, Library of Congress, 1998).
Recognizing Mao’s cult of personality, the result of totalitarian propaganda, Warhol combined realism with artificiality, suggesting the parallels between political indoctrination and capitalist advertising. The paintings of this series can be found in public and private collections including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York and Art Institute of Chicago.