Andy Warhol
American, 1930–1987

Synthetic polymer paint and silkscreen ink on canvas
448.3 x 346.7 cm (176 1/2 x 136 1/2 in.)
Mr. and Mrs. Frank G. Logan Purchase Prize and Wilson L. Mead funds, 1974.230
© 2008 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

For Andy Warhol, the most influential of the Pop artists, the direct application of pigment to canvas was outmoded and limiting. Early in his career, he began to utilize the silkscreen process to transfer photographed images to canvas. Warhol used this process throughout the 1960s to reproduce multiple portraits of celebrities, including Jacqueline Kennedy, Marilyn Monroe, and Elvis Presley. At the same time, he duplicated images of mass-produced commercial products, such as Campbell's soup cans and Brillo boxes, suggesting that the media marketed celebrities just like products.

Mao is one of a series of silkscreened portraits of the Chinese Communist leader Mao Zedong (1893–1976) that Warhol produced in 1973. Nearly 15 feet tall, this towering image mirrors representations that were displayed throughout China during and after the Cultural Revolution (1966–76). Warhol was undoubtedly drawn to this subject because of the media’s attention to the opening of diplomatic relations with the People's Republic of China in the early 1970s. His irreverent attitude toward China’s totalitarian propaganda is apparent on the surface of the painting. Flamboyant brushstrokes compete with the photographic image, forming color splashes on Mao’s clothing. Red rouge and blue eye shadow resemble graffiti. These details can be interpreted as commentary on the resemblance of Communist propaganda to capitalist advertising media.

Originally a British movement of the late 1950s, Pop Art interpreted images from consumer culture with black humor, criticism, and irony. In its American form, Pop Art presented less harsh images, adapting sources such as comic strips, commercial products, and publicity photos. This deliberate departure from the gestural style of Abstract Expressionism shocked the art world in the early 1960s.

The Art Institute’s Mao was first exhibited in Paris in 1974 with three other 15-foot canvases and many other, smaller Mao paintings. The gallery walls were covered with Mao Wallpaper, specially designed for the installation.