Andy Warhol, Mao, 1973
Mao, 1973. acrylic and silkscreen ink on linen 50 x 42 in. (127 x 106.7 cm) Initialed and dated “A.W. 73” along the overlap.Ο
PROVENANCE Leo Castelli Gallery, New York Jared Sable Gallery, Toronto Roger Davidson Collection Sale: Sotheby’s, New York, Contemporary Art Part I, November 13, 1991, lot 45 Collection of Jon and Mary Shirley Private Collection
EXHIBITED Paris, Musée Galliera, Andy Warhol: Mao, February 23 – March 18, 1974 Toronto, Art Gallery of Ontario, Selections from the Roger and Myra Davidson Collection of International Art, January 17 – March 22, 1987
LITERATURE R. Crone, Andy Warhol, 1976, no. 317 (illustrated) Selections from the Roger and Myra Davidson Collection of International Art, Toronto, Art Gallery of Ontario, 1987, p. 77 (illustrated) G. Frei and N. Printz, The Andy Warhol Catalogue Raisonne; Paintings and Sculpture 1970-1974, New York, 2002, p. 206, no. 2306 (illustrated)
I’ve been reading so much about China ... The only picture they ever have is of Mao Zedong. It’s great. It looks like a silkscreen. ANDY WARHOL (Andy Warhol in G. Frei and N. Printz, eds., The Andy Warhol Catalogue Raisonné: Paintings and Sculptures 1970-1974, Volume 3, London and New York, 2010, p. 167). The vibrant and expressive portraits of Mao Zedong are among the most seminal works of Andy Warhol’s oeuvre. This body of work, first conceived in 1972, marked not only Warhol’s return to painting after his focus on filmmaking, but it re-introduced a bold palette and a surge of poignant and gestural brushstroke that had long been masked by his silkscreening technique. The dramatic application of color, most brilliantly captured in the present lot’s array of pale blues, burnt umber, and rich browns, marked a dramatic departure from the repetitive silkscreens which dominated the artist’s output for the previous two decades. The vast canvases which comprise this series are each dramatically unique in the coloration of the subject, and technique. Each work is expressionistic, bold and brilliant, and serves as an individual exploration of the limitless facets of colors and pigments. The present lot, Mao, 1973—with its twisting and writhing blue lines along the left side of the canvas—is perhaps one of the most powerful examples from the entire series. The Mao series was unveiled in a monumental exhibition organized by Ileana Sonnabend in 1974 at the Musée Galliera in Paris. The exhibition marked a significant moment in Warhol’s career. Mao paintings of varying sizes hung on gallery walls covered in Mao wallpaper. The exhibition quickly became an absolute sensation, further cementing Warhol’s burgeoning international reputation. Each Mao canvas is significantly individual in that it includes swathes of hand-painted color applied in Abstract Expressionist style brushstrokes. As seen in the present lot, a rich and varied sky-like backdrop is created out of a mixture soft blues and whites, which are laced along the periphery of the canvas like ribbons. The blue bleeds onto Mao’s face, and dances onto the lapel of his jacket, giving the pigment freedom to reign over the silkscreen below. These energetic expressions which nearly conceal Mao’s face have been interpreted by critics and historians as a veiled subversion of a regime which outlawed creativity and self expression. The Mao paintings take a radical departure and stand in high contrast to the original source photograph of Mao, creating an irreverent representation of the Chinese Communist leader. In their vibrant compositions they shout more of American exuberance and glamour than they do of Chinese politics. Warhol began the Mao series upon the urging of his dealer, Bruno Bischofberger, who implored Warhol to return to painting after his premature “retirement.” As inspiration, Bischofberger suggested that Warhol paint the most important figure of the Twentieth Century. Bischofberger’s suggestion was Albert Einstein. Warhol’s response to this was, “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 it be the most famous person, Bruno?” (G. Frei and N. Printz, eds., The Andy Warhol Catalogue Raisonné: Paintings and Sculptures 1970-1974, Volume 3, London and New York, 2010, p. 165). The issue of LIFE Warhol would have been referring to dated from March 3, 1972 with Mao on the cover. The leader is depicted as aging and weak, slumped over in an armchair in his study. Spread across the bottom of the photograph is a banner headline lettered in red on a white field that cleverly reverses LIFE’s classic white on red logo. It announces the cover story: “Nixon in the Land of Mao.” The cover was spurred on by Richard Nixon’s historic visit to the People’s Republic of China during the last week of February 1972. The media’s heavy coverage of “the week that changed the world” inundated the American public with images of an unfamiliar China and its enigmatic leader. This was the first time a U.S. President had visited China, a country considered one of the United States’ staunchest foes. Nixon’s visit was of tantamount importance - not only to relations between the United States and China but for engineering an evolved global dynamic. Following the visit, Cold-war tensions between the United States and China were beginning to thaw. These improved relations with both China and Russia became the hallmark legacy of Nixon’s career and of monumental global significance. “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 most recognized by more of the earth’s population than any other 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, exh. cat., Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1989, p. 19). As with his earlier 1960s series of Marilyn, Liz, and Jackie, Warhol responded to the much publicized occasion with great rapidity and striking timelessness. However, the circumstances of this body of work differ greatly than those in 1962 and 1964, when the celebrity paintings were made. In the 1970s, his closest friends—Bob Colacello, Bruno Bischofberger, and Fred Hughes—urged Warhol to re-launch his painting career. Since the time he was shot by Valerie Solanis on June 3, 1968, Warhol had only completed a few commissioned portraits, lending most of his attention and focus on film production, as well as the upkeep of his famed studio and public image. The crazed attention all of New York placed on Warhol and his output, perhaps discouraged the Pop icon from re-exploring the fluid, unpredictable, limitless possibilities of paint. Warhol, however, was unable to drown out his ever working mind and reactions to the political climate around him. In 1971, two phone conversations took place, which mark the early genesis of the Mao paintings: “I’ve been reading so much about China… they’re so nutty. They don’t believe in creativity. The only picture they ever have is of Mao Zedong. It’s great. It looks like a silkscreen.” (Andy Warhol on September 4, 1971, David Bourdon). A couple months later, Warhol began pondering the idea of a series based on the famed leader. “Mao would be really nutty… not to believe in it, it’d just be fashion… but the same portrait you can buy in a poster store. Don’t do anything creative, just print it up on canvas.” (Andy Warhol on November 21, 1971, David Bourdon). The mass media surrounding Mao further inspired the artist’s fascination with the subject. And thus, Warhol chose the most ubiquitous and accessible image of Mao as the base for his multiple series of paintings which would be obliterated with fantastic colors and drenched in rich pigments. The media mechanisms surrounding Mao, implemented by the leader himself, and his disregard for bourgeois concerns of uniqueness and creativity, became the very inspiration for Warhol’s gestural, free, and lively brushstrokes in the series. While Warhol had referred to the leader as “nutty,” he immediately recognized the relationship the widely disseminated portrait had to his own work, derived from mass media, and the use of an image as propaganda. As he remarked to Bourdon in 1971, Mao’s portrait already “looks like a silkscreen.” There was a reproducibility engrained in the famous portrait that spoke directly to Warhol and his famed techniques; the Mao portrait was, in effect, already a Warhol. Mao’s image functioned as a brand, like Campbell’s soup, and Heinz Ketchup, two subjects which Warhol undoubtedly branded even further through his repetitive silkscreening process. After his long hiatus from painting, it would seem that the mass-produced image, distributed to, and consumed by the world’s post populous nation drew Warhol in. But this time, instead of painting the consumer paradise of Americana and Hollywood, he entered a new venue, one where political leaders are equated with celebrities. Although Warhol had addressed American politics a decade earlier with his Race Riot and Electric Chair paintings, it wasn’t until the Mao series that he truly engaged in political discourse through this art. He could not have picked a more loaded political subject than that of Mao and everything that he represented, particularly in the United States. Warhol’s choice of Mao was also interesting in that Mao and Warhol both believed in the importance of uniformity and collective identity, and perhaps most importantly in the power of an image. Warhol based his Mao series on the official portrait of Mao, reproduced as the frontispiece of Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-Tung, known in the west as the “Little Red Book” — Warhol incidentally owned a copy of this. This official portrait of Mao was not limited to the book — it was disseminated across the country, including a monumental version hanging in Tiananmen Square in Beijing. Like Warhol, Mao was well aware of the importance and influence of an image and he used the omnipresent billboards, posters and pamphlets of his face to reflect himself as both a benevolent and fearsome leader, keeping an eye on all of his subjects. Considering the size of China’s population, this particular image of Mao became one of the most widely distributed, viewed and recognizable images in the world. Warhol’s choice of Mao as the subject of these paintings was subversively brilliant — his face already had a pop and iconic presence in China. Mao was responsible for having engineered the persecution of intellectuals and artists throughout China during the Cultural Revolution so it is very powerful that an artist representing everything Mao loathed about Western culture chose to turn his very face into high art. In many ways, Mao had already manifested himself as the reincarnation of the very figures he was trying to erase, turning himself into an infamous icon and celebrity. The original portrait was a tool for the dissemination of Mao’s Communist propaganda and distinctly consumerist ideals — Warhol transformed this propaganda into an object of broad and open interpretation, one expressing joy and freedom. Mao was an extraordinarily controversial figure. He is credited with turning China into the superpower it is today however he is also notoriously responsible for the deaths of millions of Chinese. The significant controversy (followed by the significant press) surrounding Mao firmly cemented the Communist leader as one of the most influential and notorious figures of the Twentieth Century and in turn he became forever memorialized in Warhol’s portraits. The Mao series are crucial artworks within Warhol’s career without which it cannot be fully understood. The series is credited with Warhol’s return to painting, and with paving the way for a number of portraits and politically infused subjects including Lenin and his Hammer and Sickle series. Aesthetically, these paintings, and Mao, 1973, in particular, inaugurate a new painterly expressiveness in Warhol’s oeuvre on a scale not previously seen in his work.