Nicholas Allanach

Warhol's Mao

Mao (located on the 6th floor of 66 west 12th street) makes me smirk. I have always found this piece from the New School’s art collection ironic and amusing. American pop artist, Andy Warhol, has chosen the iconographic image of Chinese communist leader, Mao Zedong, to use as his template for what would become a series of mass-reproduced silkscreens on canvas produced in 1973 in Warhol’s “factory” located on the 6th floor of the Decker Building in Union Square. Some of Warhol’s reproductions of Mao were fifteen-feet tall - all of them alike in design, yet each wonderfully unique in its own subtle way.

Warhol found this image of Mao on a copy of the Little Red Book, a propaganda collection of Zedong’s speeches and quotations. When Warhol produced his Mao series, the United States was opening diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China. The image itself mirrors heroic representations of the communist leader that would have been prominently displayed throughout China during and after the Cultural Revolution.

I like Warhol’s Mao because it is, somehow, apolitical. The heavy historical significance of Mao Zedong as a world leader feels absent in Warhol’s Mao. Power is curbed and reduced to the playful and flamboyant splashes of bright color and paint. The Chairman’s dictatorial dominance is challenged and mocked by the most sarcastic of artist. Warhol’s Mao appears to be wearing lipstick or rouge, as if to imply drag or the makeup of a clown. Nevertheless, Mao’s own smirk is not a maniacal grin, it instead comes across as wise, almost comforting – it’s as if Warhol’s Mao gets the same enigmatic joke as da Vinci’s Mona Lisa.

Warhol celebrates and glorifies the image of Mao Zedong the same way he did with celebrities like Marilyn Monroe or Elvis Presley, as well as with commercial products like Campbell’s Soup and Brillo boxes. By using the iconic image of Mao Zedong, Warhol has subsequently placed this historical figure within the artist’s own portfolio alongside celebrities and consumer goods that exist “on the surface” of American life and throughout our capitalist culture. Is Warhol suggesting that all human societies (despite our diverse political views, and beliefs) always find a need to exalt certain figures and icons? Or, is he merely exploring the intersection of East and West? Or, Communism and Capitalism? Who knows? Warhol was a frustrating enigma, and held no qualms about selling-out.

Throughout his career, Warhol challenged the way we perceive commercial as well as serious art. Despite his celebrity and superficiality (both mediums Warhol completely exploited), I believe on some level Warhol wanted us to seriously question the images and icons we exalt and what they say about us as a society? Is Warhol suggesting that the media markets and presents world leaders the same way as celebrities and products?

Some questions:

1.) Is Warhol’s work still relevant? Why, or why not?

2.) Does Warhol’s Mao exclude anyone? If so whom? And how?

3.) Should art be political?