Roy Lichtenstein’s Mao of 1971 is a distinct pop lithograph consisting of a strong red and black colour palette. The work was originally commissioned by American novelist Frederic Tuten. It was later featured as the cover of his first book, The Adventures of Mao on the Long March. It is a fictionalised and highly experimental account of Chairman Mao's rise to power.
Tuten’s story about the Chinese revolutionary first appeared in condensed form in the 1969 edition of Artist Slain magazine. Tuten was eventually offered a publication deal on the condition that his friend Lichtenstein designs the cover. Lichtenstein’s vigorous depiction of Mao is rendered in his trademark primary colours and Ben Day dots. Tuten himself was actually used as a model for the drawing, which Lichtenstein altered to resemble Mao’s laughing profile.
Mao is the result of a masterful collaboration. What Tuten and Lichtenstein have in common is more than just their artful and surprising satires. Both featured collages, appropriated source materials and a startling juxtaposition of themes in their respective works. Furthermore, both of their oeuvres contain shrewd commentaries of Western aesthetic traditions. By transforming the real figure of Mao into a fantastical cartoon illustration, Lichtenstein deflates his mythical status in a way that fits Tuten’s literary narrative.