I’ve never been a fan of Andy Warhol paintings. Until I saw his Mao at the Art Institute of Chicago, that is.

Andy Warhol.  Mao, 1973.  Synthetic polymer paint and silkscreen ink on canvas, 14' 8" by 11' 4".  Art Institute of Chicago.

Andy Warhol.  Mao, 1973.  Synthetic polymer paint and silkscreen ink on canvas, 14′ 8″ by 11′ 4″.  Art Institute of Chicago.

Named after the infamous Chinese ruler, Mao Zedong (1893 – 1976), Mao is a highly individualized portrait of a man who abhorred individualism. Among his most enduring legacies is his relentless drive to squelch any signs of non-conformity.

Andy Warhol individualizes Mao so as to mock him, asserting and insisting that each of us is an individual, politics or not.  I believe Warhol – who claimed to be apolitical – is also injecting personal commentary on Richard Nixon’s 1972 ground-breaking trip to China.  He created Mao in 1973, one year after Nixon became the first U.S. President to visit the People’s Republic of China. Nixon’s historic visit opened Sino-American relations, and solidified China’s emergence on the international scene as a world power.

Andy Warhol.  Campbell's Soup Cans, 1962.  Synthetic polymer paint on canvas, 20" by 16" Museum of Modern Art.

Andy Warhol.  Campbell’s Soup Cans, 1962.  Synthetic polymer paint on canvas, 20″ by 16″ Museum of Modern Art.

Maybe I’m just now appreciating Andy Warhol’s sense of humor.

The sheer size of Mao – it borders on  15′ – makes the canvas and Warhol’s joke quite overpowering.

Andy Warhol (1928-1987) has proven to be the most influential artist in Pop Art. Although never a coherent art movement, Pop art strove to eliminate critic’s artificial distinction between “high” and “low” culture, and associated “good taste” and “poor taste”.

Warhol’s rendition on this was to eliminate traditional artistic value from his artwork, emphasizing that paintings were commodities and that their uniqueness arose from ideas, not craftsmanship.

Andy Warhol.  Eight Elvises, 1963.  Privately held.

Andy Warhol.  Eight Elvises, 1963.  Privately held.

This is exemplified by some of the most renowned Andy Warhol paintings, his works about Campbell Soup.  When Campbell’s Soup Cans (above, left) was first exhibited in 1962, each of the 32 paintings (the number of soup varieties then available) rested on a wall-mounted shelf, simulating placement in a grocery store.

These Warhol paintings were indistinguishable and looked mass produced.  Just as the soup itself was mass produced on an assembly line, Andy Warhol did the same with his artwork, even naming his studio “The Factory”.

Despite efforts to strip artistic endeavor from his artwork, Warhol clearly failed to turn his works into commodities — Andy Warhol paintings are some of the most sought after, expensive works sold today (Eight Elvises, above right, was purchased in 2008 for $100 million).

Explore two more Andy Warhol paintings, Marilyn Diptych and Gold Marilyn.