In 1982, a fifty-four-year-old Andy Warhol visited China for the first and only time in his life. Wandering the streets of Beijing ten years after producing his iconic portfolio of Mao Zedong portraits, he quickly took a liking to the uniformity of Chinese culture. “I like to wear the same thing every day,” he mused to Interview magazine photographer Christopher Makos, who reported this and other gnomic responses in the 2008 photobook Andy Warhol in China. Observing crowds of women and men all dressed in blue, Warhol remarked: “If I were a dress designer, I’d design one dress over and over.”
Warhol’s process in creating these prints mirrored that of the official Chinese artists who have painted fresh, identical portraits of Mao annually since 1950. Displayed prominently above the Gate of Heavenly Peace in Tiananmen Square, the 20-by-15-foot likeness of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) chairman, based on an easel-painting original by Zhang Zhenshi, reflects the cultural split of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) from its imperial past. This work gave Warhol renewed appreciation for Zhang’s source, the photographic image the American artist first adapted from his copy of Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-tung (commonly known as the Little Red Book). But his curiosity about communism never compared to his love for American capitalism. As dissident artist Ai Weiwei wrote in his introduction to Makos’s book, Warhol insisted that “a place without McDonalds could never be good—no matter what else it had.”
In the fifty years since Warhol produced his colorful silkscreen series, few historians have reconsidered its meaning in the context of evolving US-China tensions. Did Warhol originally show admiration or project skepticism? How do we make sense of the commodification of Mao’s image just a few years before China liberalized its economy? And does “artistic freedom” have limitations when it interferes in the public discourse of foreign nations? The Warhol Museum agreed to withhold Mao prints from mainland China venues of its 2013–14 traveling show “Andy Warhol: 15 Minutes Eternal.” But in the United States, such images are unrestricted. The Whitney Museum in New York, for example, prominently displayed a “giant Mao” painting in its 2018 Warhol retrospective, which also included several 1976 “Hammer and Sickle” still-life prints—wherein, in a satiric twist, the tools bear the branding of an American manufacturer, Champion.
To understand Warhol’s approach, we must begin with his initial infatuation with Chairman Mao, which stemmed not from support but amusement. “I have been reading so much about China,” he wrote in a diary entry from 1971. “They’re so nutty. They don’t believe in creativity. The only picture they ever have is of Mao Zedong.” Here, Warhol referred to the CCP’s mass propaganda campaign during the Cultural Revolution, which presented Mao as the embodiment of China’s highest post-revolutionary ideals. This far-reaching initiative saturated the Chinese media sphere—according to the Peking Review, revolutionary workers printed more than 840 million portraits just from July 1966 to May 1967—and made news beyond, giving inspiration to the Black Panthers as well as anti-imperialist movements in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.
On top of this, diplomatic relations between China and the US were becoming possible for the first time since the Chinese Revolution of 1949. With the Sino-Soviet split in 1960, the PRC and the Soviet Union were at odds outside their mutual support for North Vietnam. When China invited the US Table Tennis team to Beijing in 1971, President Richard Nixon saw an opportunity. “Ping-pong diplomacy,” as it was called, led to Nixon’s own visit to Beijing, Hangzhou, and Shanghai a year later, resulting in a mass media spectacle in the US that proliferated Mao’s image across television and print outlets. When Life magazine named Chairman Mao the most famous person in the world, Warhol knew he had found his newest subject.
The portfolio thus began as a reaction to Mao’s cult of celebrity before the PRC had fully solidified official connections with the West. The Chinese leader’s widespread fame, paired with the aphorisms found in the Little Red Book, naturally appealed to Warhol’s Pop sensibilities. (The artist himself even tried professional modeling, as documented in Makos’s new book, Andy Modeling Portfolio Makos.) At the behest of his dealer Bruno Bischofberger, who originally suggested he paint Albert Einstein, Warhol developed an initial run of ten screen prints that glamorized the portrait with wide brushstrokes of acrylic paint. Warhol in effect patted Mao’s cheeks with rouge, dabbed his lips a deeper shade of red, and accentuated the mole on his chin to make it appear as a beauty mark—thereby rendering his image effeminate.
Through such aesthetic subversion, these works served in part to lampoon Chinese culture and politics for Western audiences. Departing from the mechanical precision of Warhol’s “Marilyn” and “Liz” series, the Mao portraits are more expressionist in nature, despite the strict realism of the original picture, and they produce a psychedelic effect when shown together. Some feature dark purple paint over pastel blue; others combine lime green with fiery orange. A few remain faithful to CCP aesthetics, placing the Great Helmsman in red-and-yellow color schemes reminiscent of the Chinese flag. Warhol could print photographic portraits onto canvases in rapid succession, adding new distortions to each through the silkscreening process. Over the course of two years, he produced 199 Mao paintings in various shades and sizes, and ten screen prints in editions of 250.
If Warhol’s artistic practice was in service of commodifying culture, the Mao works have served much larger ideological purposes here in the US. For decades, Western artists, writers, and curators have taken a dim view of politics and daily life in the PRC, based largely on Cold War biases. With the Trump and Biden administrations ramping up tensions with China again today, it’s easy to see how Warhol’s prints continue, however inadvertently, to reflect American bluster and insecurity.
Two of Mao’s most widely studied essays, “On Practice” and “On Contradiction” (both 1937), brought the Chinese Revolution into wider philosophical discussions, forming the basis of Maoism, both in China and abroad. “If you want to know the taste of a pear, you must change the pear by eating it yourself,” he argues. “All genuine knowledge originates in direct experience.” Contrasting himself to academics and dogmatists, Mao positions “contradiction” as a living component of human history. This is why Chinese Communism opposes the Western metaphysical notion that human nature has been innately the same since the dawn of civilization. “In the process of development of each thing,” Mao contends, “a movement of opposites exists from beginning to end.”
Unlike here in the US, the term “propaganda” did not carry a negative connotation in China. Rather, political and artistic education formed the basis of the CCP’s cultural strategy since before the founding of modern China. In 1942, as Mao solidified his leadership role in the Revolution, he gave two talks in Yan’an articulating the political role of art and arguing that military action should be paired with a cultural strategy: “Our writers and artists have their literary and art work to do, but their primary task is to understand people and know them well.” Such understanding leads, in turn, to seeing art as a form of motivational teaching. From the Yan’an period until the mid-1970s, Mao and his wife Jiang Qing developed new cultural institutions for peasants that promoted social programs focused on painting, ballet, opera, and symphony, all modeled after those in the Soviet Union.
With all this in mind, Warhol’s depiction of Mao as a sort of cult figure chimes with Western ambivalence regarding both politicians and advertising—a relationship that the painter, a former adman turned “business artist,” exploited cleverly. The Little Red Book disseminated Mao’s ideas; Warhol propagated his image. The synthesis of mass marketing, political status, and stardom reflected US pop culture in the 1960s and ’70s, when brands like Coca-Cola were touted as symbols of personal freedom and an actor named Ronald Reagan became governor of California. Still, it would be irresponsible to place a half century of Cold War prejudice on one artist. In reality, Warhol’s work resonated so much because the PRC, having been closed to foreigners for decades, existed largely outside global observation. The Mao portfolio invited critiques of—or at least Warholian irony toward—Mao and his country from Euro-American audiences with little to no Chinese experience.
Mainstream American media has routinely portrayed Mao as an extremely wily, charismatic, and sometimes monstrous world leader. Within China, his successor, Deng Xiaoping, famously orchestrated a CCP resolution stating that Mao’s leadership was “70 percent right” and “30 percent wrong,” specifically referencing the fatal consequences of the Great Leap Forward. Half a century later, Warhol’s prints and paintings seem to have indirectly anticipated China’s integration into the global economy after Mao’s death in 1976, heightening the irony of the artworks’ international market value. The pieces continue to break records at auction, with paintings from the series fetching $17.4 million at Christie’s in 2006, $47.5 million at Sotheby’s in 2015, and $32.4 million there in 2017. Meanwhile, American artists like Brian Donnelly (aka KAWS) have sparked controversy for buffoonish depictions of Mao. It is difficult to imagine this happening without Warhol, to whom the work is an oblique homage.
The image of Mao remains ubiquitous among contemporary Chinese artists, who have pushed Warhol’s practice into a feedback loop. After Mao’s death, CCP propaganda artists began critiquing him openly in public spaces. In the late ’70s and early ’80s, the Stars Art Group revolted against the prevailing Socialist Realist aesthetic by holding public exhibitions that promoted creative freedom. At the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, dissident artists Yu Dongyue, Yu Zhijian, and Lu Decheng spattered the official portrait of Mao with ink—perhaps taking a page out of Warhol’s book. And from the late ’80s to the present, conceptual artists like Wang Guangyi, Liu Wei, and Li Shan have continued to draw influence from Warhol, as filtered through Political Pop, Cynical Realism, and other styles that developed in China following Mao’s death.
Warhol’s ambiguous late-life response to Chinese Communism (the artist died just five years after visiting Beijing) should serve as a reminder of how direct experience can alter opinion, even while anticommunism remains deeply ingrained in American culture. Consider coverage of the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, with sitting members of Congress perpetuating Cold War talking points that conflate the CCP with the Nazis, and major newspapers making comparisons to the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. Further, the charge that China’s zero-Covid lockdown measures are “dystopian” shows how the West reacts to any perceived threat to its cultural hegemony, while pandemic deaths in the US now exceed one million.
After fifty years, Warhol’s conflicting intentions for the Mao portfolio pale in comparison to what it symbolizes for the art world today—the stringent relationship between art and capital. Despite his love for money, the artist was nonetheless drawn to Mao’s words and kept a copy of the Little Red Book on hand. He also appreciated the official art he encountered in the PRC. As Makos noted, “Andy actually thought the real Mao portrait was better than his, and really loved the original.” In one of Makos’s photos from Beijing, Warhol stands at the gates of the Forbidden City in front of a Mao portrait painted by one of Zhang’s successors, Ge Xiaoguang. The Pop art superstar appears to be an offbeat individualist as Chinese pedestrians pass by, in uniform garb, seemingly unfazed.