Andy Warhol is one of the most famous artists to be featured in the Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens’ permanent collection. Rembrandt, Rubens and Norman Rockwell are also in there. John Singer Sargent, Robert Henri and Thomas Hart Benton, too.
The Cummer’s Warhol is a classic example of his Pop Art silkscreens. The image, iconic to the artist, Communist Chinese President Mao Tse Tung. This 1972 silkscreen on paper is instantly recognizable as Warhol and so closely aligns with the style and subject matter of work he’s best known for it could be included on his Wikipedia page.
I don’t like it.
For a lot of reasons.
This presents the perfect opportunity to share a secret about enjoying art and art museums: you don’t have to like everything.
You won’t like everything you see in any art museum; no one does. You can appreciate everything – and I appreciate the Warhol piece for its innovation and impact – but I wouldn’t hang that in my home. Coincidentally, it’s displayed about 12-feet from my favorite artwork in the Cummer’s collection: Mildred Thompson’s Magnetic Fields. Such is the case with Modern and Contemporary art, you can regularly love and loathe objects sharing space.
Everything in an art museum is there for a reason, but that doesn’t mean everything has to be for you. And never apologize for what you do, or do not, like.
The High Renaissance does nothing for me. Da Vinci, Raphael, Michelangelo – some of the most beloved art in the world –they don’t move me at all. Why? I’m not a religious person and have no personal connection to their Madonna’s and St. Peter’s and St. Paul’s and Resurrections. Flat line. I can appreciate the technical mastery and importance of their work, but I’d rather look at paintings of the Rocky Mountains any day. That’s what I personally connect to.
Many art museums have more objects on display than you could ever fully consume in a single visit so don’t feel guilty breezing by the pictures that don’t move you to spend more time with the ones that do. In fact, that’s the best way to experience an art museum, slowing down to spend time with a handful of items and truly appreciating them instead of trying to visually gobble up everything.
This is particularly true when you’re out of town and visiting a museum you may never again. Don’t waste time with stuff you don’t like out of an obligation to art history or famous names.
I would encourage challenging yourself by spending time with artwork you don’t particularly like at your hometown museum if you can visit regularly in order to define your tastes and sort out in your mind what you dislike. Maybe you’ll change your mind, maybe some previously overlooked detail will enlighten you, maybe you’ll simply be better able to explain what turns you off about it.
Back to Warhol’s Mao.
From a technical standpoint, I like paint. I love thick impasto. I am a tactile person and want my eyes to absorb ridges and globs and layers of paint. Impressionism, post-Impressionism, Abstract Expressionism. I want to see the hand of the artist. Brushstrokes.
Silkscreens are flat.
More than that, however, with this particular picture, it’s the subject matter that churns my stomach. Mao was a butcher. Mao’s Great Famine was responsible for an estimated 45 million deaths between 1958 and 1962 alone. More than Hitler or Stalin. Adding to his starvation was forced labor, torture, purges, cultural genocide. As many people that died, an equal number were likely unfairly imprisoned.
“When a boy stole a handful of grain in a Hunan village, local boss Xiong Dechang forced his father to bury him alive. The father died of grief a few days later,” Historian Frank Dikötter, author of “Mao’s Great Famine,” wrote.
That’s what I see when I look at this artwork and it makes me want to vomit.
Warhol doesn’t share that story – in my opinion – in this silkscreen which, to me, with its joyful neon colors, seems to glorify Mao into a celebrity or sorts. Perhaps there’s a critique of Mao lost in its translation to me from its creation in 1972. Perhaps Warhol is highlighting the contrast between these vibrant neon colors and the drab, lifeless existence in Mao’s China. Perhaps it’s a thumb in the eye of the Communist dictator to portray him as Warhol did Liza Minelli or David Bowie.
But it’s lost on me.
What I see is a colorful portrait of one of humanity’s greatest villains, with none of his villainy on display.
For an artist who more accurately portrays Mao – an artist who felt his wrath along with her family – meet Hung Liu.