Andy Warhol’s Mao 93 comes from one of the artist’s most controversial and famous series. Warhol created his Mao portfolio directly after President Richard Nixon visited China in 1972. The event was widely publicized due to the Cold War tensions that gripped both countries. At the time, Warhol was working on a wide variety of projects; Interview magazine, films, and celebrity-commissioned portraits occupied much of his time. But Warhol always kept one eye on the culture of the present moment, remaining in a constant state of absorption. The infamous communist dictator inspired a cult of personality through mass propaganda, and Warhol spent most of his career fascinated by celebrity iconography. A linear parallel existed between the two worlds, and Warhol sought to break the barriers between them.
The idea to use Mao as a subject began with a conversation Warhol had with art dealer Bruno Bischofberger. Bruno influenced Warhol to broaden his scope and take on more ambitious material, suggesting that he paint the most important figure of the 20th century. While Bischofberger floated Albert Einstein as an idea (which Warhol would bring to fruition years later), Warhol was already miles ahead. “Oh, that’s a good idea,” he responded. “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?”
From a young age, pictures of celebrities in Hollywood magazines mesmerized Warhol. Later, his career in commercial art enhanced his ability to understand the public. He also recognized the stratagems used to market a product, an image or even an idea to the masses. It was both of these things combined—his fascination with celebrity and his flair for consumer sensibilities—that crafted Warhol’s identity as an artist. Over the course of his career Warhol painted a wide variety of stars including Marilyn Monroe, Jane Fonda and Mick Jagger. Anyone who was famous enough to nudge public consciousness in one direction or another was worthy of exploration.
Although he didn’t consider himself openly political, Warhol never avoided the subject. During the 1960’s he even completed screen prints of Jackie and John F. Kennedy as a part of his Flash series. Mao, however, was Warhol’s first un-American subject of stature. Though Warhol knew Mao was a communist dictator who didn’t believe in creativity or individual thought, he was also aware that the ruler was a famous icon worldwide. Additionally, Warhol’s ultra-capitalist perspective heightened his response towards his subject. By painting a propagandist photograph of Mao in an array of loud, vibrant colors, Warhol individualized him. In a way, the series highlights Warhol’s sense of humor towards his subject; if Mao condemned unfettered art, Warhol would turn Mao into art himself. By doing this, Warhol altered Mao’s image in western culture.
Mao 93 showcases the ruler in bright shades of pink, turquoise and blue. Warhol’s use of pink to paint Mao’s lips gives the ruler an androgynous appearance, while messy brush strokes across the portrait defy the clean lines that characterized totalitarian propaganda. To this day, Mao 93 and the rest of the pieces in this series remain transgressive creations that call into question the relationship between celebrity attention and cult-like adoration.