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    The Yoshitomo Nara show at the Asia Society.

    One of Yoshitomo Nara's little rebels: Untitled (Nobody's Fool), 1998.

    One of Yoshitomo Nara's little rebels: Untitled (Nobody's Fool), 1998.

    COURTESY THE ARTIST/COLLECTION OF PETER NORTON

    They’re so cute. Or are they positively evil? They stare out from the canvas, wearing mischievous grins on swollen potato heads. Sometimes they clutch knives. Hanging at the corner of innocence and menace, these are Yoshitomo Nara‘s kids—and they’re coming to New York.

    For the first time in its history, the Asia Society Museum will dedicate its entire exhibition space to a single contemporary artist. The retrospective “Yoshitomo Nara: Nobody’s Fool” (from September 9 through January 2) features 100 works tracing the neo-Pop artist’s production over the last two decades. White Ghost, two 12-foot-high sculptures depicting dog-like creatures, will stand guard outside both the museum and the Park Avenue Armory.

    Nara made his mark with a heady dose of rebellion. In the ’90s, he and Takashi Murakami created work that resonated throughout Japanese youth culture and established the pair as the country’s first art superstars. While Murakami’s appeal lay in catchy and colorful motifs and hyperrefined execution, Nara’s derived from his insouciant, smudgy, and raw drawings and paintings of impish kids.

    Magna and anime—as well as children’s picture books, graffiti, and Renaissance fresco painting—influence Nara’s style, but what may surprise viewers is the extent to which music drives his art and life. The show calls attention to this in a section displaying records from Nara’s collection, works he annotated with song lyrics, and album covers he illustrated for the German new-wave band the Birdy Num Nums, REM, Shonen Knife, and the Bloodthirsty Butchers, among others.

    The museum is also preparing a brochure of Nara’s playlists that viewers can take away with them. The lists contain works by a wide range of musicians, from singer-songwriters like Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan to such classic-rock acts as Alvin Lee and the Allman Brothers Band.

    “I can never imagine myself as a musician,” says Nara. “But if the viewers stand in front of my work and find thought processes, or some kind of tenderness, a sense of delicate fragility—not only the simple expression of emotions of youth and roughness—I believe it is due to the music I listened to before I met punk.”

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