Andy WarholAndy Warhol – Photo: Getty Images

Infamous and controversial, Andy Warhol’s “Mao Portfolio” was published in 1972 and reflects both the political and cultural zeitgeist of that era. As a prescient consumer of media and highly influential artist, Warhol’s fascination with China’s Mao Zedong was, in large part, attached to how the leader’s reputation and political power circulated as an image: “I have been reading so much about China,” Warhol said in 1971. “They don’t believe in creativity. The only picture they ever have is of Mao Zedong. It’s great. It looks like a silkscreen.” By appropriating Mao’s propaganda portrait and rendering it as a silkscreen, Warhol made the complex geopolitical moment his own; the complete portfolio was co-published in 1972 by Styria Studio, Inc. and Castelli Graphics in an edition of 250 and is today one of Warhol’s most iconic and widely recognized works of art. Warhol’s Mao prints, however, remain banned in China.

Andy Warhol Mao PortfolioA complete “Mao Portfolio” by Andy Warhol features 10 images of the Chinese leader in vibrant colors. Photo: Rago/Wright Auctions

Following President Richard Nixon’s landmark visit to Communist China in February 1972—which broke a 25-year hiatus in diplomatic relations between China and the United States—LIFE magazine dubbed Mao the most famous person in the world. Given that Warhol had long been enamored with celebrity culture and the growing curiosity in America about life in China before and after Nixon’s visit, it makes sense that Warhol turned Mao into a subject for his art. The portrait model for Warhol’s Mao series is an austere photograph featured on the cover of many editions of his ubiquitous collection, “Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-Tung” (The Little Red Book), first published in 1964. However, similar to Warhol’s colorful, glamorized images of Marilyn Monroe in paintings and prints throughout the 1960s, his renderings in the “Mao Portfolio” make use of a varied, at times garish, palette in which the supreme leader’s lips and cheeks appear rouged, and the mole on his chin darkened, while abstract, graffiti-esque squiggles add an irreverent flourish to the background on either side of Mao’s face.

Warhol Mao printWith its bold, artificial colors and mass-produced screenprinting technique, Warhol’s Mao prints
turned the communist leader into a consumable object rather than a symbol of political ideology
Photo: Rago/Wright Auctions

Ultimately, Warhol’s “Mao Portfolio” explores the intersection of the propaganda of social control and the oversaturation ethics of capitalist advertising, transforming the Chinese leader into a consumable object. Despite Mao’s association with Communist ideology, Warhol’s prints turned Mao into a Pop icon and marked Warhol’s gradual shift beyond mostly appropriating images of celebrities into political portraiture and commentary — his 1964 work, “Birmingham Race Riot,” signaled an earlier predilection toward the political. While the Mao prints and corresponding paintings were largely praised for their bold colors and mass-produced techniques, they also faced criticism and censorship, particularly in China, where they were seen as disrespectful. Nevertheless, Warhol’s “Mao Portfolio” continues to provoke discussion about cultural exchange between the East and the West, leaving a lasting mark on international relations and the volatile currency of fame.

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