What Memes Owe to Art History
Each: 36 by 36 in. (91.4 by 91.4 cm.)
From the Catalogue
Despite considering himself apolitical, Andy Warhol in 1971 displayed an unexpected interest in China following the astounding amount of press coverage received after the People’s Republic replaced Nationalist China in the United Nations General Assembly and Security Council. China’s political shift opened up newfound diplomatic relations with the United States and, in doing so, Americans were eager to uncover its unknown culture. In an effort to forge a political relationship with the United States, and advertise the new atmosphere of warmth and congeniality in the communist regime, China invited an American table tennis team to tour the country. Shortly afterwards, President Nixon announced that he would be the first U.S. President to travel to China, which ignited a media outpour as both countries prepared. Undoubtedly, influencers in China, like Warhol himself, were conscious of the power of the American media: both that it functioned at exponential, quick rates and that Americans were blindly dependent on it. Thus, it is clear that China targeted the United States as a vehicle to spread their propaganda due to the way Americans coveted the experience of listening to the radio, watching television, and reading the newspaper at all times. Warhol himself responded to the ongoing reports surrounding the new communist regime, commenting: "I've been reading so much about China…They're so nutty. They don't believe in creativity. The only picture they ever have is of Mao Zedong. It's great. It looks like a silkscreen" (David Bourdon, Warhol, New York 1989, p. 317).
In many ways, Warhol’s series of Mao portraits can be considered an extension of his already established exploration of fame—how it is constructed, received, and communicated—as demonstrated in his iconic portraits of celebrities such as Jacqueline Kennedy, Marilyn Monroe, and Elizabeth Taylor. In fact, Warhol is noted for saying that he had read in Life Magazine that Mao Zedong was the most famous man in the world. As such, Warhol was inherently attracted to Mao as a subject because he was the ultimate manifestation of a foreigner’s celebrity, as posters of his portrait were displayed in storefronts on nearly every street corner throughout all of China, similar to how movie stars were exalted by their American fans. However, the omnipotence of Mao’s image, in ways such as this, was a reflection of the type of dictatorial power he exercised, as opposed to a true account of the way he was revered by the Chinese public. In this way, in his series of Mao portraits, Warhol reveals how the chairman constructed fame as a political weapon.
This revelation presented an alternative avenue of fame for Warhol, as he had only previously showcased his celebrity subjects as victims to the unstoppable consequences of fame—namely, constant media scrutiny and commodification. Warhol had masterfully expressed the inescapable, dehumanizing effects of the media’s invasiveness through his innovative silkscreening technique, an artistic medium that mimicked the printing apparatuses used to regurgitate copies of celebrity scandals en masse. As Warhol himself has described, the process was meant to be wholly mechanistic in order to eliminate any artistic intervention or individuation onto the finished product. In doing so, Warhol sought to employ repetition as both an artistic style and cultural exploration. However, in his series of Mao portraits, Warhol eschews this aesthetic and returns to painting as a response to Mao’s previously noted denunciation for creativity.
With all this in mind, this particular set of ten highly decorated Mao screenprints presents a rare instance where the artist boldly communicates his political and moral character. In comparison to his other political series, such as Race Riots and Electric Chair from 1963, Warhol employs painterly embellishments as a method of retaliation. For Warhol, the idiosyncratic painterly marks function to protest against Mao’s aggressive policies against individualism exercised during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s. During this time, Mao sought to enforce both class and cultural conformity by eliminating any professions and practices that had any traces of self-expression, and thus, did not contribute to the "revolutionary spirit of the masses." In order to create the ultimate communist community, Mao punished artists, intellectuals, and musicians through humiliating "re-education" discipline, such as building walls or repairing roads (David Bourdon, Warhol, New York 1989, p. 318). As such, Warhol redefines long-standing associations with Mao by purposefully appropriating his image from the official book Quotations from Chairman Mao Zedong—more commonly referred to as Little Red Book—which each citizen was advised to carry at all times. In doing so, Warhol repudiates Mao's major tool for ensuring widespread obedience, and simultaneously, effaces the principles of Maoist ideology visually represented by this monumental portrait. Firstly, Warhol derides Mao’s intolerance for artistic expression by coloring each illustration before silk screening the image. Furthermore, by juxtaposing each distinct, one-off portrait against one another, it is clear that Warhol attempted to reinvent each "Mao" as a representation of a unique individual by utilizing colors that stand out against one another. Finally, by enhancing each portrait with garish colors, Warhol exposes immoral issues concealed within Mao’s totalitarian system—namely, race, gender, and sexuality. Warhol accomplishes this through the coloring of Mao’s skin, which regenerates each sitter as both realistic and fantastical ethnicities. Similarly, Warhol creates the allusion of make up by using distinct colors for Mao’s lips, eyelids, and cheeks—drawing a subversive parallel to his glamorous silkscreen portraits of female celebrities, such as Marilyn Monroe. As a whole, in this set of ten prints, Warhol was able to elevate his innovative silkscreen technique and unique aesthetic for pop culture in order to make a political claim against dictatorial injustice.
—Courtesy of Sotheby's
Signature: each signed and stamped with the artist's name, date 1972, number 163/250 and printer's name STYRIA STUDIO INC. on the reverse
Frayda Feldman and Jörg Schellman, Andy Warhol Prints: A Catalogue Raisonné 1962-1987, New York 2003, cat. no. II.90-99, pp. 82-83, illustrated in color
Steven Bluttal and Dave Hickey, Eds., Andy Warhol "GIANT" Size, London 2006, p. 507, illustrated in color
Donald J. Christal, Los Angeles
Jonathan Novak Contemporary Art, Los Angeles
Private Collection, New York
Artemus, New York
Obsessed with celebrity, consumer culture, and mechanical (re)production, Pop artist Andy Warhol created some of the most iconic images of the 20th century. As famous for his quips as for his art—he variously mused that “art is what you can get away with” and “everyone will be famous for 15 minutes”—Warhol drew widely from popular culture and everyday subject matter, creating works like his 32 Campbell's Soup Cans (1962), Brillo pad box sculptures, and portraits of Marilyn Monroe, using the medium of silk-screen printmaking to achieve his characteristic hard edges and flat areas of color. Known for his cultivation of celebrity, Factory studio (a radical social and creative melting pot), and avant-garde films like Chelsea Girls (1966), Warhol was also a mentor to artists like Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat. His Pop sensibility is now standard practice, taken up by major contemporary artists Richard Prince, Takashi Murakami, and Jeff Koons, among countless others.
American, 1928-1987, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, based in New York, New York
What Memes Owe to Art History
10 Masters of the Self-Portrait, in Their Own Words
Your Kids Will Love These Children’s Books Illustrated by Famous Artists