Nicholas Allanach

Mao makes me smirk. I find this piece from The New School’s art collection ironic and amusing. American pop artist, Andy Warhol, chose the iconographic image of Chinese communist leader, Mao Zedong, as his template for what would become a series of silkscreens on canvas mass-produced in 1973 in Warhol’s “factory” located on the 6th floor of the Decker Building in Union Square. Some of Warhol’s reproductions of Mao were fifteen-feet tall—all alike in design, yet each subtly unique.

When I first encountered Mao on the 6th floor of 66 W. 12th street, the Graduate Program in International Affairs (GPIA) was located there. Today the space is used for the School of Language Learning and Teaching. Whenever I pass Mao on my way to meet colleagues, I wonder what our students think about it?

Warhol found this image on a copy of the Little Red Book, a propaganda collection of Mao’s speeches and quotations. When Warhol produced his Mao series, the United States was opening diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China. The image itself mirrors heroic representations of the communist leader that would have been prominently displayed throughout China during and after the Cultural Revolution. How do we view the piece now considering China’s economic dominance on the world stage? Perhaps one way for the piece to be seen today would be through the screen of an iPhone?   

I like Mao because it is, somehow, apolitical. The heavy historical significance of Mao as world leader feels absent. Power is curbed and reduced to the playful and flamboyant splashes of bright color and paint. Dictatorial dominance is challenged and mocked. Mao appears to be wearing lipstick or rouge, as if in drag or as a clown. Nevertheless, Mao’s own smirk is not maniacal—instead it seems wise, almost comforting—as if he gets the same enigmatic joke as da Vinci’s Mona Lisa

Warhol glorifies the image of Mao Zedong as he did with celebrities like Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley, as well as commercial products like Campbell’s Soup and Brillo. By using this iconic image, he placed this historical figure within his own portfolio alongside celebrities and consumer goods that exist “on the surface” of American life and throughout capitalist culture. Is Warhol suggesting that all human societies (despite our diverse views and beliefs) always feel the need to exalt figures and icons the same way? Or, is he exploring the intersection of East and West? Or, Communism and Capitalism? Who knows? Warhol was a frustrating enigma, and had no qualms about his contradictions. 

Throughout his career, Warhol challenged the way we perceive commercial, as well as serious, art. Despite his celebrity and superficiality (both of which he exploited), I believe Warhol wanted us to seriously question the images and icons we exalt. 

What do these representations say about us as a society? 

Is Warhol suggesting the media markets and presents world leaders the same way it does celebrities and products? 

And, again, how do we approach Mao today, knowing such large proportions of products, purchased by Americans, are actually made and mass-produced in China?

Nicholas Allanach
Staff, The New School for Public Engagement