Takashi Murakami, one of the best-known artists in the world, is the subject of a major retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago that opened this week. With that show in mind, reprinted below is Kay Itoi’s profile of the Japanese artist from the March 2001 issue of ARTnews. Itoi’s profile follows in full below, republished with the author’s permission.
“The Wizard of DOB”
By Kay Itoi
Takashi Murakami’s cartoon characters and action figures emerge from the world of Japanese animation
Mr. DOB is a bright-eyed cartoon character who most closely resembles Mickey Mouse. Created by Japanese artist Takashi Murakami, the perky-eared, button-nosed creature takes many shapes in Murakami’s sculptures and precisely rendered paintings—from a smiley-faced innocent to an amorphous blob bearing images. Mr. DOB, which Murakami patented, also appears in many commercial guises, in the form of dolls and key chains, for example, and printed on T-shirts, mouse pads, and watches. The artist sells these items in his studio’s gift shop, outside of Tokyo. He says the competitive art world taught him to create for the market. “Art is not universal,” explains the 38-year-old artist, “but more like fashion with a little longer life span.”
Murakami draws inspiration primarily from otaku, or “geek,” a segment of Japanese youth culture. Like Trekkies in the United States, who fixate on the sci-fi television show Star Trek, otaku are obsessive fans, amateur creators, and avid consumers of manga (animated television shows, videos, films and computer games).
The artist, who commonly dresses in a T-shirt, baggy pants, and a baseball cap that shadows his boyish and bespectacled face, says he is one of the otakus. He has adopted a graphic cartoon style and modeled some figures on familiar characters and action figures prevalent in Japanese animation. But Murakami exaggerates their design, often to sensational effect. Among his most striking works is Hiropon (1997), a larger-than-life fiberglass sculpture of a cartoon girl with big bright eyes, a small, smiling mouth, and pigtails. Naked, except for a bikini top clinging to her tremendous breasts, she gleefully clutches her huge phallic nipples, from which thick streams of milk squirt and loop behind her lime a jump rope. Murakami made a companion piece a year later—My Lonesome Cowboy, a smiling, nude cartoon boy, holding his penis, with a white jet of semen spiraling up into the air like a lasso.
He modeled the face of Cowboy after a character in a popular video game so it would look familiar to viewers. “It could be tiresome, but it is important to present what you are trying to do to the audience in a very easy-to-understand way,” he says. “Nobody tells you that in Japan, and it requires some training.”
Born in Tokyo in 1962, Murakami was among a generation that grew up during a period of massive economic growth and American pop-culture imports. In love with cartoons since childhood, Murakami wanted to become an animation artist but felt his drawing wasn’t good enough. He entered the prestigious Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music as an undergraduate to improve his technique. Eleven years later, in 1993, he left the university, having earned a Ph.D. in nihonga, a traditional form of Japanese figurative painting.
While still a student, Murakami gained exposure with shows at galleries in Tokyo, Kyoto, Hiroshima, Nagoya, Osaka, and other Japanese cities. Tomio Koyama, a Tokyo gallerist, remembers first encountering Murakami’s work in a student show at the university museum. Among his paintings, Murakami exhibited a sculpture titled Polyrhythm (1991). The piece features hundreds of toy American soldiers attached to a seven-foot-tall plinth of synthetic resin. For Koyama, it has multiple meanings—but whether it is a criticism of Japan’s invasion of neighboring nations or a commentary on the postwar American occupation, or even just nostalgia for childhood, is left for the viewers to decide. “Not only was the skill developed through his academic training evident, but he also showed keen interest in Japan’s cultural and social context,” says Koyama, who has since worked closely with the artist.
In 1994, Murakami launched a conceptual project based on a bizarre true story. A former agent of actor Kase Taishuu won the right to Taishuu’s name and began promoting another actor as the new Kase Taishuu. As the episode made a stir in the media, Murakami staged a hoax by enlisting four students to pose as Taishuu on television. He effectively marketed the impostors for awhile before the ruse was revealed. The art establishment in Japan was not amused by the stunt, and Murakami says that some of his museum projects were canceled.
That same year, he went to New York to participate in the International Studio Program at P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center, on a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation Asian Cultural Council. He quickly attracted attention, exhibiting his Pop-influenced projects, paintings, and light boxes over the next five years in Los Angeles, Paris, and New York. His works were included in the 1995 Venice Biennale, the 1996 Asia-Pacific Triennial, and the 1999 Carnegie International. Today, he divides his time between studios in Saitama, north of Tokyo, and New York.
His studio in Japan is called Hiropon Factory, in the spirit of Warhol’s 1960s Factory. (“Hiropon” is an out-of-date slang term for methamphetamine.) There, Murakami enlists assistants to fabricate his works. He also provides young artists with facilities to create their own pieces and exhibit them. His Web site, www.hiropon-factory.com, features art, an e-zine, and a gift shop. Murakami is considered a trendsetter in Japan and frequently appears in popular magazines and on television and talk shows.
In his art, lectures, and the group exhibitions he has curated in the past couple years, Murakami asserts that this mix of high and low culture represents a new esthetic encompassing a broad range of contemporary art and culture. He calls it “super flat,” referring to, among other things, the flattening out in today’s Japanese art of conventional boundaries separating genres such as painting, illustration, photography, and fashion.
“Superflat” is the title of a 200-piece show that Murakami curated, surveying this vein of Pop-influenced contemporary Japanese art. It’s on view through May 27 at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, the inaugural exhibition for the museum’s new Gallery at the Pacific Design Center.
“Los Angeles is very open to cultural production that crosses or ignores traditional boundaries, and there is great interest in this in Japan right now, especially with regard to Japanese consumer culture and its sophisticated and finely tuned shifts in taste,” explains Michael Darling, the museum’s coordinating curator for the exhibition. “Murakami has his finger on the pulse of this phenomenon.”
He features the work of 19 artists in “Superflat,” including Yoshitomo Nara’s paintings of cartoon children with oversized heads and angry eyes, as well as amateur-looking snapshots of teenagers by the 23-year-old artist known as Hiromix, who has had a huge influence on young photographers in Japan. Also on view are images from animated films and a fashion installation by 20471120, a performance group.
In addition to its leveling of genres, the concept of “super flat,” Murakami maintains, is common in Japanese animation and traditional Japanese painting—an esthetic characterized by stylized lines and two-dimensional treatment of shapes, and devoid of perspective. In the exhibition catalogue, Murakami traces the origin of the cartoon images and their two-dimensionality back to painting from the Edo period (1603–1867). For example, he points out the striking resemblance in composition between the 17th-century masterpiece A Mountain Bird on a Japanese Apricot Tree, by Kanō Sansetsu, in which a crooked tree branch stretches across four golden panels, and the popular Japanese animated film Goodbye to Galaxy Express 999 (1981), by Yoshinori Kanada, which is filled with explosion scenes and large clouds of smoke. “It is the original Japanese sensibility, different from the Western perspective,” says Murakami. “Super flat,” according to him, is not just a physical flatness but an alternative viewpoint in which distinctions between high and low are eradicated and, ideally, artworks are created to be understood by all.
He “integrates many levels of Japanese creativity, from traditional screen paintings to the most advanced computer graphics, and he attempts to dissect the differences,” notes Dana Friis-Hansen, chief curator at the Austin Museum of Art, who co-organized Murakami’s solo exhibition at the Center for Curatorial Studies Museum at Bard College in 1999.
“His eye and his mind are nimble and prolific,” adds Friis-Hansen. “For Japan, he might be like how Andy Warhol is to American culture or Joseph Beuys is to German culture, in that he draws upon the past to help us better understand the present and future.”
Murakami’s collecting base remains outside Japan, though, mainly in the United States. Peter Norton, the California-based software entrepreneur and art collector, is a major supporter of Murakami and invited the artist last year to make a limited-edition artwork for the annual Peter Norton Family Christmas Project, which Norton and his wife, Eileen, send to 3,000 curators, dealers, and other art-world figures. Murakami created Oval, a character made of molded plastic with nine eyes, two mouths, and a patch of yellow hair on his oversized head. He sits, as if meditating on top of a sphere that Murakami refers to as a “cosmos ball,” which is covered with pink, yellow, blue, white, and red flowers with smiley faces. Inside the ball is a CD of ambient music by the Tokyo-based duo ZakYumiko.
This year, Murakami’s work will be featured in a solo show at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, opening the 25th of next month, as well as in gallery exhibitions at Blum & Poe in Santa Monica (his primary international representative), Marianne Boesky in New York, and Emmanuel Perrotin in Paris. Prices range from $25 for items such as T-shirts at Hiropon Factory to $250,000 for paintings and sculptures.
In August, Murakami will become the youngest artist to have a solo exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Tokyo. “His work tests the possibilities of Japanese art,” says Junichi Shiota, chief curator of the museum. That exhibition will be accompanied by a smaller, Murakami-curated show of young artists as well as a flea market–like event modeled after “comic markets,” popular gatherings where amateur otaku artists sell their creations. “It will not be what you expect at a museum, and will surprise the hell out of everybody,” Murakami promises.
His unorthodox, sometimes in-your-face approach has raised eyebrows, but Murakami is unapologetic. “Art is to prove that the previous generation was wrong,” he says. “One day I will be told that I was wrong, but until then, I will keep doing what I believe in.”