Between 1972 and 1973, the late great pop-art pioneer Andy Warhol created 199 silkscreen paintings of the notorious Chinese revolutionary communist leader Mao Zedong. Each painting is unique due to the slight variations that result from the silkscreening process and the wide variety of colors Warhol employed. The paintings were made in the wake of the then recent historic visit of U.S. President Nixon to China where he met with Mao. One of these paintings hangs in the Broad museum in Los Angeles as part of its world-class permanent collection of Warhol paintings.
Having seen many of these Mao paintings since childhood at various museums around the world — from New York to Paris to L.A. — and in books and on posters, we’d reached a point where we might see one and walk by it with scarcely a thought. But on a recent visit to the Broad, we stopped and for the first time in a long time stood in front of the painting and really gave it re-consideration.
The Mao paintings offer a lot for the viewer to unpack when the cultural-political context is more fully taken into account. The image of the Chinese leader itself has an Orwellian quality. Warhol used a massively re-produced photo of Mao that circulated as propaganda throughout China and as a go-to file-photo for the world’s media in the 1960s and ’70s, during the tumultuous Cultural Revolution period of post-war China. The photo made Mao an icon. The celebrity-obsessed Warhol confirmed Mao’s global fame with his series of paintings.