THE SPINE NOVEMBER 16, 2006
A Honk Kong collector spent $17.3 million last night at Christie's for one of Andy Warhol's ten paintings of Mao. This is an awful lot of money for an image that Warhol did over and over again. After all, it isn't only the ten "synthetic polymer and silkscreen inks on canvas" that comprise--what shall we say?--Warhol's Mao oeuvre. In a book on Warhol called Warhol (excerpted in the special Christie's sales catalogue for this one item), David Bourdon writes that the artist "was repeating Mao's plump face on canvas, in pencil drawings, in silkscreen prints, and on wallpaper." Possibly thousands and thousands of Mao images. As many as Marilyn? Or Elizabeth Taylor? Or the Campbell soup can? I suppose I could find out. But you get the point.
I was never drawn to anything Warhol did. Actually, my tastes go to gold ground Siena and early impressionists. So I guess you understand why. But it's not only that I don't like what Warhol paints. I also don't like what Warhol says. The handsomely produced single lot catalogue (that's what both Christie's and Sotheby's do for big ticket items) contains several essays that purport to show that, though Warhol was apolitical, his ongoing involvement with Mao's image was somehow oppositional or, at least, ironic and paradoxical. Whatever these adjectives mean in this context. In fact, with whatever tongue-in-cheek Warhol did or did not intend, his renderings of Mao are simply extensions of China's mass production of the chairman's image.
Recall, as we are reminded in the catalogue, that Warhol became obsessed with Mao and China just when Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger organized the great opening to the People's Republic. Irony was not on anybody's mind. Nor certainly was the fact that Mao happens to have been the greatest mass murderer in modern history. More than Hitler and more than Stalin. As it happens, Warhol was canny about who would acquire his images of Mao. Capitalists, that's who. And very rich capitalists, at that.
This is truly paradoxical. But it points to how whimsical and frivolous our elite politics truly are. I know one McMansion, actually a great classic house by a great classical architect (Alan Greenberg) on a great Connecticut estate, where one of Warhol's other Mao paintings (one of the big ten) presides over "the great room." I don't know whether the owner is liberal or conservative. But how, dear God, can he live with that image! Yes, it is true that some critics have written that the slightly rough expressionist swaths of color on Mao's jacket are threatening. Of course. How come I didn't see that myself? Thanks for pointing this out.
Would Warhol have depicted Hitler as anything but evil? Or, perhaps not, but maybe as a neutral in the struggles for decency in the world? The one thing I do know is that Warhol depicted Nixon as quintessential evil. Maybe he was. And there wasn't much paradox or criticism in his portrait of Lenin. And, as for his paintings, silkscreens, et cetera of Che ... They're more or less like the other ill-informed pictures of the Fidelista hero.
PS: There's a deeply truthful painting of Mao at the Metropolitan Museum of Art by Anselm Kiefer, "Let a Thousand Flowers Bloom." And, of course, truth also in the portraits of Mao by many Chinese painters. Of course, they lived with Mao ... and suffered under him.