Takashi Murakami is Challenging Art as We Know It

The artist has earned international recognition by collaborating with the likes of Louis Vuitton and Comme des Garçons, and all his work involves introspection and deep cultural meaning.
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Takashi Murakami looks forlorn. Sipping water from a bottle in a small office above Gagosian gallery a few days before his exhibition opens, Murakami is slumped in his Raf Simons hoodie. He has been chosen for the coveted Oscars show at Gagosian’s Beverly Hills outpost, when all the celebrities are in town. And indeed Pharrell Williams, Tyga, and Maria Sharapova would all attend his opening a few days later. 

It’s my fault really. I’ve just asked him about his dog, Pom, who has been a staple leitmotif in Murakami’s work. In fact, the gallery downstairs displays a small painting in which a thought bubble pops up next to an anime style self-portrait of Murakami and Pom, whom he took in from the street over eight years ago. “When I can’t go on living alone, you are next to me. Nobita has Doraemon. I, Takashi Murakami, have POM. Thank you for being there,” Murakami’s avatar is thinking.

“Pom actually has cancer now, so she might die soon—so that's why this came up,” Murakami says through his translator, Yuko. “I have no experience with cats or dogs; I was not feeling for that kind of animal. [Before Pom,] I was feeling for the turtles and the fish, but a dog is very special. It’s like family, but I never knew that. So when, with Pom, the doctor said cancer, my feeling was, Oh my God. I was crying a little bit.”

Such a vision of the 57-year-old artist might surprise a casual fan. The characters that populate Murakami’s work are so ebullient, they look like they might burst out of the paintings and sculptures that Murakami creates. There are thousands of hopped-up flowers, the overstimulated imps Kaikai and Kiki, and the technicolor Mr. DOB—who is actually a critical take on the relationship of Japanese artists to Western symbolism. That same casual fan might be surprised that Murakami’s work is quite critical of the art world’s structures.


For almost his entire career, Murakami has been dedicated himself to the “superflat,” an invention he expressed in a 2001 exhibition, “Superflat,” at the Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles (MOCA) and a concurrent book that extolled the virtues of the two-dimensional as seen in Japanese manga and anime. “One way to imagine superflatness is to think of the moment when, in creating a desktop graphic for your computer, you merge a number of distinct layers into one. Though it is not a terribly clear example, the feeling I get is a sense of reality that is very nearly a physical sensation,” he wrote back then in his manifesto on the subject.

“I was speaking with some clients, and I couldn't speak English very well, so they would ask me about concepts,” Murakami says, reflecting on his early career. “I had a lot to say, but I couldn't convey that very well. That was a big frustration, so the Superflat book and the exhibition were me trying to say, ‘This is what I wanted to tell you.’ It was the moment when all these thoughts I had cooking for a long time in my head were actually received by the audience, so it gave me a lot of confidence, and I also felt the need for continuing to digest and explain what I really want to say. So, that period of time was a big turning point for me.”

The world took notice, and Murakami became not only an artist recognized all over the world, but a brand. In fact, he started a company called Kaikai Kiki. With Kaikai Kiki, Murakami has collaborated with Comme des Garçons, Vans, Supreme, Google, Herschel Supply Co., Macy's, Casio, Visvim, ComplexCon, and the list goes on. It all started with Murakami’s iconic collaboration with Louis Vuitton, which was, at the time, shunned by the art world—but helped usher in an era of artists working with fashion brands.



In fact, it was that collaboration that led to an ongoing relationship with Virgil Abloh, which began after the fashion designer and architect came to see Murakami’s show two years ago at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. 

“He told me, ‘My first experience of art was your Louis Vuitton collaboration,’” reflects Murakami. “When I heard that, I was very happy, because the Louis Vuitton project hasn't really been valued or recognized. When I did it, [only] Stephen Sprouse was also invited by Marc Jacobs to do this [kind of] collaboration. We were really the beginning. At that time, the art world was saying, ‘Oh, you sold out to the commercial side.’ Now, everyone does it. I started the trend, but the fact that I was kind of the forerunner is not appreciated. I was feeling not very good about that. Then, Virgil came and told me about how important it was for him, so I thought if I work with Virgil, I might feel refreshed. My youthful feeling might come back.”

Murakami might also be considered a visionary when it comes to rappers working with contemporary artists. He created the cover for Kanye West’s 2007 album Graduation and a video for the album’s single “Good Morning.” Murakami worked again with West on an album cover for last year’s Kids See Ghosts (by West and Kid Cudi).

That Kids See Ghosts painting (which West selected from Murakami’s archives) is indicative of a different style within Murakami’s work. It’s not all happy flowers and superflat characters: Murakami studied traditional Japanese painting and has been creating masterful works in the nihonga painting style, as well as painting in the style of traditional Chinese ceramics. (One such work, Qinghua, based on a fish motif hand-painted on a blue-and-white cup that dates back to the 13th century, takes up the entire back wall of the Gagosian show.) The paintings are drastically different from the superflat works, but Murakami sees no hierarchy in his practice.



“There was a time when I really wanted to be a painter who could paint abstract paintings,” Murakami says. “I was imitating American expressionism or minimalism, and I was studying them and imitating them. I study Japanese nihonga, and also I'd been very immersed in otaku—special effects, sci-fi, and animation—those are my obsessions as well, so with these backgrounds, how would I turn that into the contemporary art form? I really then thought that otaku and anime imagery and the nihonga style that I had studied, both were really present, so those really influenced me equally."


The Gagosian show, titled “Gyatei2” (a reference to the Buddhist Heart Sutra), sees Murakami at his most introspective, and it’s not just due to his sadness. That introspection has been present throughout his career, but it’s just now asserted its importance in his work. The juxtapositions have always been there—some works in the show address his relatively recent return to his Buddhist practice and others talk about his addiction to Instagram—it’s just that Murakami is starting to truly put them all together.



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