Mao 97 by Andy Warhol is one of ten screen prints included in the artist’s epic Mao portfolio. The Mao series marks Warhol’s entry into a more political realm. While he featured political icons like Jackie and John F. Kennedy in his 1960’s screen prints, Mao was a much more controversial figure.
Known for his integral role in the Cold War, the revolutionary-turned-communist dictator ruled China from 1949 to 1976. As a result, the leader habitually appeared on television and various news outlets. In 1972 when President Nixon paid a visit to China, media networks displayed an image of a near-smiling Mao on a loop. The photograph originated from the Little Red Book, a popular collection of Mao’s speeches and writings. This is the very same image Warhol would use for Mao 97 as well as the rest of the prints in the collection.
Warhol’s fascination with Mao was not unlike his fascination with Marilyn Monroe or Edie Sedgwick, and he did not treat Mao any differently in his portrayal of the political leader. By its very nature, this was the most remarkable political statement the artist could make. The machinery of communist propaganda and Maoism—the dogma associated with Mao’s cult-like following—likely captivated Warhol. Mao was a powerful figure with tremendous sway over culture, and Warhol aimed to study the perplexing ways in which a dictator could posses the same following as a Hollywood star.
Warhol was a firm believer in American business sense and capitalism, the antithesis of Mao’s anti-individualist ideology. “Making money is art and working is art and good business is the best art,” Warhol declared. During his rule, Mao denounced artists as counter-revolutionaries, obliterating their work. The state only accepted art that supported the regime and its tenets. At the same time, Mao was a public icon of international importance, regardless of how infamous he was. It was characteristic of Warhol to choose subjects that were highly influential to culture. Therefore, the decision to depict Mao was not so outlandish as it may seem. In fact, the portraits fit easily into Warhol’s frame of reference.
Mao 97 bathes the dictator in technicolor hues, its bright yellow background awash with light and vibrancy. Warhol colors Mao in warm, brash tones that serve to contrast unrelenting totalitarian principles. In addition, a pinkish red paints Mao’s lips, giving him an individualized and even androgynous appearance. Warhol knew this was not how such a leader would wish to be represented. Consequently, it wouldn’t be too bold to suggest that Warhol intended to challenge Mao’s worldview and all he stood for. Though the portrait itself is a commentary on Mao’s tremendous power and influence, it simultaneously works to undercut that power. By placing him through the westernized lens of Pop, Warhol alters Mao’s public image, making him over into a star preening for an audience.
Mao 97 is a dramatic piece that showcases Warhol’s depth as an artist. Further, the Mao series remains a provocative work of art to this day. In 2013, China banned the series from appearing in a Warhol retrospective entitled “Andy Warhol: 15 Minutes Eternal.” The Chinese government deemed the images disrespectful due to the portrayal of Mao wearing make-up. Nearly fifty years later, Warhol’s work remains a topic of conversation. Surely, this is just as he intended.