Andy Warhol (American, 1928-1987) Mao 1973

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Lot 8*
Andy Warhol
(American, 1928-1987)

Sold for £ 1,070,500 (US$ 1,428,387) inc. premium
Andy Warhol (American, 1928-1987)

signed, dated 73 and with the Andy Warhol Art Authentication Board stamp and number A104.076 on the overlap
acrylic and silkscreen ink on canvas

30.5 by 25.4 cm.
12 by 10 in.


  • This work is accompanied by a certificate of authenticity issued by the Andy Warhol Art Authentication Board, Inc., New York.

    Leo Castelli Gallery, New York (no. LC 1027)
    Paul Kantor, Los Angeles
    Ulrike Kantor, Los Angeles
    Acquired directly from the above by the present owner circa 1981

    Sally King-Nero and Neil Printz, The Andy Warhol Catalogue Raisonné: Paintings and Sculptures 1970-1974, Vol. 3, New York 2010, p. 235, no. 2385, illustrated in colour

    The word 'masterpiece' may be overused in the art world, but few works of art can deserve the label more than Andy Warhol's Mao of 1973. A paradigmatic canvas, representative of the artist's oeuvre at its most innovative, energetic and darkly witty, this is an image which captivated a generation, recording a pivotal moment in art, and indeed world history. The remarkable thickness of the acrylic we see here is typical of the period, demonstrating Warhol's developing fascination with his materials; the paint is added with undoubted vigour, but also with a care which allows it to enhance the image beneath, each block of colour highlighting elements of the portrait. As its simple title implies, Mao depicts the face of one of the last century's most powerful and controversial leaders bathed in a wash of colour; acid green, luscious blue and a crown of intense red applied with a dexterous élan which symbolises Warhol's triumphant early 70s return to painting. After more than three decades in a private collection, with an exemplary provenance dating back to its original purchase from the Leo Castelli Gallery, New York, the present work re-emerges as arguably the finest example of this landmark series to ever reach the market.

    Already an art-world success story, by the late 1960s Andy Warhol had apparently moved on from painting, immersing himself instead in the process of filmmaking, using his growing circle of 'superstars' as actors. By the start of the following decade, he was being advised to return to the medium that had first made his name; a new, high-profile portrait was required, one to match his Marilyns or his Jackies, a face that would capture the moment. His Swiss dealer Bruno Bischofberger apparently suggested in 1971 that Albert Einstein might make a suitably heavyweight subject, but Warhol had other ideas. By the following year, he had produced the first example of what has become one of his most instantly recognisable set of portraits, a new image to define a new era. The face that Warhol chose was that of Mao Zedong (sometimes written Mao Tse-tung), also known as Chairman Mao (1893-1976). A group of works featuring this face was to follow, re-establishing Warhol as a master of modern painting.

    The image that Warhol chose for his portrait was the photograph of Mao included as the frontispiece to his famous book, The Thoughts of Chairman Mao, better known today as the Little Red Book, a collection of essays, quotes and speeches by the man himself which summed up the key principles of Maoism. Published between 1964 and 1976, the book was printed in vast numbers; although accurate figures are hard to come by, estimates have ranged from one to around six billion copies, many of them being distributed during the Cultural Revolution. The face that Warhol appropriated for the present work not only decorated this book, but also hung in countless state offices and buildings throughout China, its enigmatic, authoritative expression gazing down at generations of Chinese citizens. In terms of instant recognisability, this portrait is up there with the Mona Lisa, Jesus and Queen Elizabeth II, all of whom, of course, were also painted by Warhol at some point in his career. Whilst the original image was highly posed and no doubt painted in a manner that presented the best aspects of the Chinese leader, in Mao, 1973 Warhol has added his own distinctive flourishes, turning a portrait which had become virtually undecipherable through its very ubiquity, into something entirely new.

    The present work vividly displays Warhol's renewed interest in colour, and his growing concern with the gestural use of paint that is typical of this period. Video footage of the artist at work on one of his Mao canvases survives, showing the vitality of his technique, the paint pulled and dragged across the surface in bold, boisterous swoops. The result, as we see in Mao, 1973, is a fascinating dialogue between source material and painterly overlay, with the cool, calm visage of Mao himself shrouded in an aura of colour and motion. The thickness of the paint is remarkable, the deep impasto a record of the vitality of Warhol's practice at this time, referencing perhaps the high-relief elements of Abstract Expressionism in all of their glorious messiness. In places, most noticeably in the blues and whites of the figure's jacket, the paint seems to have been squeezed straight from the tube, the tones barely mixed before they hit the canvas. The most striking element here is surely the rich scarlet ring which hovers, halo-like, above the head. With his hint of a smile, the rather austere Mao himself seems, perhaps surprisingly, to be relishing the magnificent, stained-glass glow that engulfs him.

    The early 1970s witnessed an unprecedented thawing of relations between China and the USA, but any idea that Warhol saw his Mao portraits as a political statement seems to be dispelled by the notes he made in his diary around this time: "I've been reading so much about China. [...],' Warhol wrote. 'The only picture they ever have is of Mao Zedong. It's great. It looks like a silkscreen" (the artist in: David Bourdon, Warhol, London 1995, p. 317). Ultimately, it was the image itself which interested the artist, and perhaps most importantly its omnipresence across the world's most populous nation. Warhol's interest in the everyday is well known, as seen in works such as his celebrated Soup Cans and Brillo Boxes, as well as his use of newspaper headlines and advertising slogans in his silkscreens. In the case of Mao, he was appropriating the closest thing that China had to commercialism, although in this case it was politics and power which were being promoted, advertised and promulgated. Despite this, it is hard to believe that Warhol did not see the paradox inherent in this work, the portrait of a Communist hero reworked by the artist best-known for his portrayals of rampant consumerism: what could be more post-modern, more ironic than Mao as "blue-chip" art masterpiece, the portrait of a harsh critic of Western capitalism painted to hang in the drawing rooms of America's moneyed collectors?

    The Mao portraits were celebrated in a pivotal 1974 exhibition at the gallery run by the legendary Leo Castelli, Warhol's principal dealer in New York who was crucial in establishing the artist's international reputation, where the present work was also originally purchased. An instant critical success, the bold palette and painterly style of the Maos established the template for Warhol's portraits throughout the following decade. A number of them now reside in important museum collections around the globe: the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York has a portrait on canvas, as does the Art Institute of Chicago and the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Denmark, while the Centre Pompidou in Paris and MoMA, New York have monochrome Maos in graphite on paper. Numerous more recent artists have also re-appropriated Warhol's appropriated image, demonstrating the intense hold that that work has had across late Twentieth and early Twenty First Century art. Perhaps most telling is the list of Chinese artists who have since produced their own Maos, an impressive roll call which includes names such as Yan Pei-Ming, Zeng Fanzhi, Wang Guangyi, Li Shan, Ai Weiwei and Yu Youhan.

    Warhol himself only made it to China in 1982, six years after Mao Zedong's death, but he still made sure to have himself photographed in front of a monumental public image of the late leader on show in Tiananmen Square. Today, the attitude of the Chinese, both general public and State Council alike, is one of ambivalence. Depending on your viewpoint, Andy Warhol's Mao, 1973 may represent a vision of power and omnipotence, or cruelty and dictatorship, the heroism of a true revolutionary, or the folly of political egoism. Nevertheless, Warhol's choice of image was undoubtedly prescient, for, as he so often did, he has selected here a portrait with a global and timeless reach. In this work of art we discover a portrait of a man who changed the world painted by a man who also changed the world, two figures who have had an incalculable influence on the cultural landscape that we inhabit today. No matter what your political viewpoint, Andy Warhol's Mao of 1973 is nothing less than a cornerstone in the canon of modern art, a true classic with a never-ending ability to inspire, challenge and influence.
Andy Warhol (American, 1928-1987) Mao 1973
Andy Warhol (American, 1928-1987) Mao 1973
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