Popping the celebrity: Warhol’s attack on icon fetishism as demonstrated through Mao


By Shalina Chatlani


Warhol’s pop art is known throughout the art world for boldly representing the celebrities and pop-culture figures of the time in an outlandish way. This research seeks to understand, through one of his most famous works Mao, the underlying assumptions of his method. Asking what the foundations of his work are, this paper will use scholarly sources on Warhol’s historical background and contemporary research in order to dissect Warhol’s obsession with celebrity. Primarily, this paper argues that Warhol sought to address the theme of commodity and icon fetishism, but was also a victim of that very capitalist structure because of his background and artistic roots.


The surreality of celebrity is a theme that Andy Warhol was both fascinated with and often attacked through his artwork. As a popular cultural and artistic figure, he understood very well the exciting, but often struggling nature of fame; and, he used his pop-art to deconstruct this idea, laying out very boldly through vivid colors, exaggerated lines, and prints, in an almost parody version of an icon or figure that he saw as being worshipped. This strategy was an attempt to represent, sort of paradoxically, the reality of the celebrity through the visual representation of the celebrity’s surreality. With so much foresight into the concept of icon fetishism, Warhol managed to even address the potential of “celebritized” artwork, by turning reproduction into the art form itself. This method both preemptively acknowledges that his work would be re-mixed and re-imagined as it became a study piece, but also visually offers the sentiment of publicity and constant spotlight that is often evoked as a function of celebrity life, such as real-world paparazzi and intimate spreads in People magazine.

In 1972, Warhol after a break from painting and a stint with film, returned to screenprint and painting after becoming fascinated with the cover of a Life Magazine, which had a picture of Mao Zedong on it. The magazine had named the Chairman the most important person of the 20th century, a title which intrigued Warhol, because Mao had promoted for himself a mass ideology and cult following. Warhol, who had been following Chinese culture became infatuated with the way the population iconized the Chairman. He’s quoted as saying:

“They’re so nutty. They don’t believe in creativity. The only picture they ever have is of Mao Zedong. It’s great. It looks like a silkscreen” (Bourdon 95).

As a Western artist, Warhol with his remediated Mao prints not only deconstructed the celebrity of the figure, but also ended up serving as an interesting example of West meeting the East, as his almost blasphemous rendition of the Chairman actually stripped away a lot of the authoritarian undertones of his image and the Communist regime. His artwork has even come to be accepted within Chinese contemporary art. Using Mao as the overarching example, this essay argues that Warhol used the nature of icon worship to create artwork that actually deconstructs the commoditization of the individual. By exploring Warhol’s return to painting and screenprinting in the 70s, the pop-art form during the era and use of it as remediation of the true image, and his attempts to understand and represent the surreal nature of celebrity and icons, this research observes how Warhol broke down the celebrity complex even while being rooted in it.

Warhol’s roots in commercialization; a departure from painting, and a return 

Andy Warhol: Self-Portrait (Passport Photograph with Altered Nose), 1956© The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc.

Andy Warhol: Self-Portrait (Passport Photograph with Altered Nose), 1956© The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc.

Warhol in 1945 entered the Carnegie Institute of Technology, where he would received his degree in painting and design. Interestingly, while he was in school, he had a part time job as a window scene creator in stores, by which he became directly exposed to the “world of consumption and advertising.” These would become the subject of his artwork (Warhol and Faerna 97). Faerna in a biography on Warhol writes that the artist had become fascinated with the idea of changing his identity, particularly his physical appearance and often found news ways of representing himself differently through artwork, as shown on the right. In New York during the 50s, he was a free-lance commercial artists for magazines like Glamour and Vogue, through which he began
building his repertoire. In the 1960s, Warhol decided to break from the commercial art world, and enter into fine arts (Faerna 97).

Marilyn Monroe, 1962. The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc.

But instead of embracing the pre-existing order of fine arts, Warhol wanted to transform it, by bridging the gap between avant-garde and the public. His goal was to make it so that common people, not just the elite and educated classes, could become the audience of his work. His dive into pop art was supposed to be accessible for everyone. He was deeply influenced by the commercial past he had been submerged in, and became interested in the commercial technique of mass production. Thus, in the late 50s and early 60s, he began developing his work in painting and screenprinting and ended up producing some of his most recognizable and most often reproduced work, such as the Campbell’s soup cans and portraits of Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe (Faerna 97).

In a brief move away from the world of painting, Warhol then began to become interested in filmmaking, taking up with bands like The Velvet Underground and producing “multimedia ‘happenings”‘. Warhol was becoming even more absorbed into the world of celebrity, becoming accustomed with the reality of fanaticism, when in 1968 a radical feminist even tried to assassinate him (Faerna 97). Truly, Warhol never stopped considering the reality of commodity. For example, Bourdon in Warhol writes about an experience the artist had in meeting John Lennon and Yoko Ono that he couldn’t separate the individuals from the thought of how much money

Yoko Ono, John Lennon, and Andy Warhol, June 5, 1971. Photograph by David Bourdon, David Bourdon Papers, 1953–1998.

Yoko Ono, John Lennon, and Andy Warhol, June 5, 1971. Photograph by David Bourdon, David Bourdon Papers, 1953–1998.

they were making. He quotes Warhol talking to a friend saying, “They must make a million dollars a day!” and proceeding to urge him to have a “little talk with Yoko” and persuade her to commission a portrait of herself (Bourdon 95).  So, not only was Warhol interested in representing commodity through icons, he was also very determined by it–he was a product of the system he sought to represent and even attack. Warhol was always around this theme of surreal life, the type of existence of constant watching, fame, and money.


Accordingly for Warhol, the world of politics were just another form of celebrity. In 1971, the year when the People’s Republic of China renewed relations with the United States, newspapers and other form of American media were filled with articles on the new “climate of the friendliness in the communist regime” (Bourdon 95).  In 72, Warhol, who had become really infatuated with Chinese culture during this time, decided to return to screenprinting and painting to represent it. His reasoning for returning to portraits is evident in one his quotes from Bourbon’s biography, where Warhol is clearly influenced by money, icon worship, and politics in the form of celebrity:

“Since fashion is art now and Chinese is in fashion, I could make a lot of money. Mao would be really nutty…not to believe in it, it’d just be fashion…but the same portrait you can buy in the poster store. Don’t do anything creative, just print it up on canvas” (Bourdon 95).

Warhol was attracted to the idea of producing Mao’s face, because it was both one of the most recognizable faces in the world and a simplified for many American of “alien and threatening form of government. He had the foresight to think that this type of painting would be appealing to “capitalist collectors in the West” (Bourdon 95). Particularly given the context of artistic pursuit in China during the time, Warhol’s work on Mao was popular for paradoxically representing a symbol of hope for the future of arts in China but also being made specifically for a Western audience. During the 60s, artists and intellectuals were regularly silenced in China, and often persecuted during the Cultural Revolution. Even though he purely intended for Mao to be a profitable return to painting, Mao ended up becoming a representation of undermining authoritarianism. Had he been in China, he probably would have ended up in prison (Bourdon 95).

Warhol beside Mao's portrait, Tiananmen Square, 1982.

Warhol beside Mao’s portrait, Tiananmen Square, 1982. From Warhol in China by Christopher Makos. 

The methods of the pop art world, and Warhol’s production of Mao 

The pop art movement was a move to blur the line between “high” and “low” art (The Art Story). Taking a step away from the “elevated” metaphorical subjects on mythology, history, and morality within classical art, pop art tried to move work on popular culture to the status of fine art. While movements like Abstract Expressionism reimagined the real world in a way to represent trauma, pop art took a sort of disinterested and cool approach to discussing the real world in a more direct way. Some critics of the pop art movement claim that it actually endorsed rather than critiqued capitalism and mass media (The Art Story).


American Preparedness 1968. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York.

For instance, one of Warhol’s contemporaries at the time, Roy Lichtenstein, took images from pop culture and comic books and painted them to look as if they were in an originally printed format. In painting red dots to represent the normally machine printed patterns in comics, Lichtenstein created “low” art in a “high” art format. Warhol flipped Lichtenstein’s technique, by using machines within his artistic style. In doing this, he “acknowledged the commodification of art, proving that paintings were no different from cans of Campbell’s soup” (The Art Story). The essence of the pop art movement was to take normal everyday items and objects and turn them into high-culture pieces, in order to turn an elite art scene into something more generally accessible. At the same time many artists used mass production techniques that were used in advertising to influence consumers to keep buying things in order to actually critique commodity fetishism post- WWII, methods such as commercial silkscreen to printing.

Warhol was a poster-boy for the pop art movement, and through his technique he committed himself to acting like a machine. Kahmolz quotes him in a Sotheby’s article in his response to the origins of his method:

“The reason I’m painting this way is that I want to be a machine, and I feel that whatever I do and do machine-like is what I want to do” (Kahmolz 2013).

"Mao," Musee Falliera, Paris, Feb 23-march 18, 1974, Bourbon 95.

“Mao,” Musee Falliera, Paris, Feb 23-march 18, 1974, Bourbon 95.

Warhol’s technique was to silkscreen print images repeatedly onto the canvas in an effort to undermine any evidence of “the artist’s hand.” Instead, he wanted to create the look of a mass-produced and machine look. To maintain sharp lines and bold colors, Warhol would pass a full ink-filled sponge over mesh that was sitting on top of the silk screen. The ink would seep through the mesh, except for places where Warhol had put glue. For Warhol, areas where the ink didn’t seep through perfectly, were just areas that were unique and added to the machine aesthetic or the “trashy immediacy of a tabloid news photo” (Kamholz 2013). And through reproduction, Warhol addressed “the commodification of fame”.

After becoming fascinated with Mao again in 1972 after an about five year rendezvous with film, Warhol returned to this methodology. Like other work, Mao was produced through screen printing and painting, putting on top of his face the type of glamorous makeup he used for the Marilyn portrait. But in a new technique, he also incorporated drawing, scribbling some lines alongside his face.

First Generation American, Andy Warhol, at The Art Institute of Chicago's Modern Wing.

First Generation American, Andy Warhol, at The Art Institute of Chicago’s Modern Wing, photo from Desert Domicile.

Warhol of course created multiple different prints of Mao in order to achieve the sense of reproduction. One that is particularly noteworthy was displayed on the left at The Art Institute of Chicago. The ways in which Warhol sought to deconstruct the authoritarian nature of Mao and turn his celebrity into the the artwork itself is apparent in the eye make-up and rosy cheeks. The scale of the painting evokes the severe nature of the Chairman, but the image doesn’t maintain an authoritarian overtone, such as the official image of Mao that was reproduced throughout the People’s Republic of China, because in this rendition he looks rather ridiculous and comical. The addition of the beauty mark, along with drawing techniques, like the splattered color at the bottom, shows how Warhol conveyed communist propaganda as a parody commercial advertisement. Both as a statement on culture and perhaps an unintentional political statement, Warhol as a Western artist, applied American pop culture and marketing methodologies to an Eastern figure and offered a critique on mass media at the same time. It’s also representative, given its influences, of how Warhol was also extremely determined by capitalist intentions. Other reproductions also utilize bold distracting colors, as shown in the photo below. The one in Chicago, however, is highly representative of how Warhol managed to deconstruct celebrity, even in politics.

Andy Warhol MAO (F. & S. II.90-99) From thesothebys.com

Andy Warhol MAO (F. & S. II.90-99) From thesothebys.com

Warhol goes to China, his artwork stays

In 1982, Warhol actually ended up traveling to China. In Christopher Makos’ book Warhol in China, one can through his photos that Warhol was obsessed with rigid nature of the culture– the rules, the repeated photos of Mao everywhere, and sharp architecture. To Warhol, it was a completely separate world. The Chinese lifestyle was evocative of the reproducibility context that he worked in.

Frahm, the director of the Blenheim Art Foundation, wrote for the Huffington Post that Warhol’s visit to Hong Kong and Beijing occurred at a pivotal moment in Chinese history. His depictions of Mao offered a window about the the type of liberal awakening and active Western capitalistic intrusion that would occur throughout China. Warhol, upon visiting, noted immediately that there wasn’t a McDonald’s there, amazed with out how uncommercialized Beijing looked. Though, he foresaw that China too would become a victim to commodity.


Ai Weiwei, COCA COLA VASE, 2011, taken from thesothebys.com

His artwork did more than just offer a glimpse into what might occur in the nation; it became a reference point for change in the Chinese artworld at the onset of development in contemporary Chinese art. Frahm writes that when it came to the image of Mao, it would come to characterize the start of more openness, and the ability for artists and intellectuals to begin publicly questioning the order of the system, especially things like propaganda: “As an essential cultural reference point in China, the image of Mao has become a crucial image within contemporary art practices —continually appropriated and repeated (much as Warhol would) as a signifier of skewed ideals and the paradoxical traumas these can cause” (Frahm 2014).

The same type of commodity fetishism that Warhol originally explored through his pop artwork is now emerging heavily within the contemporary Chinese art scene, as modern artists “examine and critique the commoditized values and ideologies in post-revolutionary China” (Frahm 2014). He mentions for instance the artist Ai WeiWei, who like Warhol, uses pop culture references to illuminate commercial aspects of society. He created the piece Han Dynasty Urn with Coca-Cola logo, which suggests that Western commercialism is taking over Chinese history and destroying its cultural heritage (Frahm 2014). But also like Warhol, Ai WeiWei recognizes that he too is apart of the system he is critiquing.

Conclusion: The surreality of celebrity inescapable

Even as an artist, Andy Warhol oozed celebrity. Being so immersed in the world of advertising and commercialism, Warhol’s quick rise to fame only further opened his eyes to the effects of mass consumerism on authenticity in culture. Using his pop art to elevate “low” art to “high” fine art, Warhol was able to break the boundaries of intellectual elitism. Further, through his technique of mass reproduction, Warhol preemptively acknowledges the reality that art too will become commoditized, and manages to turn the commodity back into art. Warhol’s artwork truly highlights the type of insight he had into celebrity culture, as well as how much he thought it permeated different aspects of society. Mao is an example of how even politics and political figures can be commodities to people, as he saw Mao as a figure of a mass cult following and driver of a propaganda machine–the same way he viewed advertising of everyday products like coca cola bottles.

But it’s also important to note, as the essay argues throughout, that Warhol clearly in his background and his reaction to the opportunity to create artwork is a victim to the system he is critiquing. Warhol though he sought to demonstrate the character of consumerism was very much so driven by his own capitalist tendencies, having created Mao for some part because he thought it would have been profitable. His life therefore is an interesting example for how commodity fetishism and consumerism are basically inescapable. However, Warhol deserves credit for taking care to address every aspect of celebrity culture, even as it turns his own artwork would become endlessly reproduced and commodified.

Works Cited

Bourdon, David. Warhol. Abrams, New York, 1989.

Warhol, Andy, 1928-1987, and José M. Faerna. warhol. Cameo/Abrams, New York, 1997.

Warhol, Andy, et al. Warhol in China. Hatje Cantz, Ostfildern, 2013.

Bibliography (Uncited References)

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Gelder, Ken. “Reconstructing Pop/Subculture: Art, Rock, and Andy Warhol. by Van M. Cagle. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 1995. 240 Pp.” Popular Music, vol. 16, no. 1, 1997, pp. 125.

Hung, Ruth Y. Y. “Red Nostalgia: Commemorating Mao in our Time.” Literature Compass, vol. 12, no. 8, 2015, pp. 371-384.

Kang, Kyoung-Lae. “Warhol”s “Faces” as Mimesis in Mass Culture: Reading Serial Portraits, Outer and Inner Spaces (1965), and Screen Tests (1964-1966).” 문학과영상, vol. 16, no. 3, 2015, pp. 489-515.

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