1962 • Tokyo, Japan
The works of Japanese artist Takashi Murakami have inspired both admiration and confusion. Inspired primarily by anime, Japanese animation, and manga, Japanese comics, Murakami's paintings and sculptures feature bright, candy-colored images of cartoon-like characters, with large eyes and exaggerated body parts. His works are often decorated with smiling flowers, round, blinking eyes, and colorful mushrooms. Murakami's creations defy traditional classifications, breaking down numerous barriers. He blurs the line between so-called high art—the kinds of works normally seen in museums and galleries—and "low" art, like that seen in cartoons or advertisements. He also contradicts the traditional idea of an artist toiling away in a studio to painstakingly create one-of-a-kind works. Murakami employs a large staff of assistants who help him churn out his designs. Some of his works are extremely high-priced creations intended for a gallery or art collectors, but he also mass-produces merchandise, such as mugs, keychains, and T-shirts, featuring the characters he has created. Murakami is often classified as a pop artist. Pop artists are inspired by popular culture, choosing subjects from such sources as cartoons, billboard advertisements, and consumer goods. He longs for—and in large measure has achieved—a kind of success that few artists realize: he has earned the respect of many in elite art-world circles while also making a good living and becoming hugely popular with the general public.
Born in Tokyo, Japan, in 1962, Murakami grew up in a household that placed a high value on art. His younger brother, Yuji, also became an artist. Japanese popular culture informed his outlook, but he also felt the impact of Western society, particularly the popular culture of the United States. Murakami became exposed to some aspects of American life during a time when his father worked at an American naval base, and he also absorbed a great deal through imported movies and music. "Only recently did I realize how much I've been influenced by Steven Spielberg," Murakami told Interview magazine in 2001. "In his films there is a tension between the children's world and the adults' world." Many of Murakami's works capture that tension between the innocence of childhood and the experience of adulthood, with his cartoon-like images sometimes displaying a dark and slightly creepy undertone.
"I have learned in Europe and America the way of the fine-art scene. Few people come to museums. Much bigger are movie theaters. The museum, that space is kind of old-style media."
Murakami wanted to be an artist when he grew up. He was particularly interested in animation and comics, and he felt that studying art would help him improve his drawing skills. He enrolled in the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music in the early 1980s.
Pop art, a movement that reached the peak of its influence during the 1960s and 1970s in New York, originated as a rebellion against what some artists saw as a pretentious, elitist art world. Pop artists turned to subjects that had previously been considered unworthy of fine art: consumer products, cartoon characters, and commercial art like that seen on billboards or in magazine advertisements. Pop artists sought to return art to everyday life—or to bring everyday life into the world of art—borrowing images that the general public saw at the grocery store, on the television, or in newspapers.
The person most often associated with pop art is Andy Warhol (1928–1987), an eccentric and ingenious artist who stunned observers with his paintings of Campbell's soup cans and the legendary blonde bombshell Marilyn Monroe (1926–1962). His most famous works involve the repetition of one image with slight variations—the type of soup in 32 Campbell's Soup Cans, for example, and the colors in Marilyn Monroe. He had a crew of assistants that helped create his works at his studio, known as the Factory. Warhol often used photographs as the basis for his paintings and reproduced his works using mass-production techniques rather than working by hand. During his lifetime Warhol was alternately dismissed as merely a commercial artist and embraced as one of the most daring avant-garde rebels of his time. In the years since his death, his tremendous influence on modern art has become widely accepted.
Another successful pop artist was Roy Lichtenstein (1923–1997), best known for his comic-strip-style paintings. Lichtenstein borrowed images from newspaper comics of couples kissing or objects exploding in battle. He used thick, black lines and bright primary colors as well as speech bubbles and sound-effect words like "pow!" to create paintings that divided critics but were hugely popular with the public.
Keith Haring (1958–1990), a successful and somewhat controversial artist in the 1980s, also exemplified the principles of pop art. Using grafitti art as his inspiration, Haring created a collection of familiar images—his radiant baby and barking dog, for example—that he used in numerous works, with slight variations. Like many other pop artists, including Takashi Murakami, Haring caused collisions between high art and low art, creating both museum-quality works and mass-produced merchandise.
Working in a variety of styles and employing a multitude of methods, pop artists have all had one thing in common: the struggle for critical acceptance. Because they refused to accept limited definitions of the types of subjects that are appropriate for works of art, pop artists have been dismissed by some critics as merely illustrators or commercial artists—designations meant to belittle their abilities and demean their work. Over time, however, acceptance of pop art as a legitimate form of fine art has spread, and the pop art movement has, to a large degree, succeeded in bringing popular culture into the realm of high culture.
There he studied Nihonga, a nineteenth-century style of Japanese painting that combines Japanese subject matter with European painting techniques. He earned his bachelor of fine arts degree in 1986 and then continued his studies to earn a master's degree in 1988 and a PhD, or doctorate, in 1993. Even while studying Nihonga, Murakami began to wonder how meaningful that style was to modern-day Japan. During the early 1990s he continued painting and began to teach drawing, working in the traditional style he had studied at the university while also searching for his own style. Murakami had become increasingly drawn to the world of manga and anime, and he was also fascinated by the concept of kawaii, a Japanese term that translates roughly to "cuteness." Murakami sought ways to incorporate these popular trends into his works to create something of lasting value, as he explained in a 2001 essay, quoted in Wired magazine: "I set out to investigate the secret of market survivability—the universality of characters such as Mickey Mouse, Sonic the Hedgehog, Doraemon, Miffy, [and] Hello Kitty."
In Japan, the United States, and elsewhere, kawaii has proven to be extremely popular, particularly with children and young adults. Japanese characters such as Pokemon and Hello Kitty are used to sell tremendous amounts of merchandise. According to a 2003 article in U.S. News & World Report, Hello Kitty appears on some 20,000 products, and annual sales of such products total about $500 million. Anime and manga, both of which often feature wide-eyed, childlike characters pursuing fantastic adventures, are also connected to the kawaii phenomenon. Like Hello Kitty, these cartoons and comics have spawned abundant products—toys, action figures, clothing, and much more—leading to an intensely competitive collecting frenzy. Die-hard collectors not only acquire the merchandise but also accumulate detailed knowledge of the cartoons and comics themselves. This devotion to anime and manga and to collecting related merchandise is shared by a large community of fans referred to as otaku. That term, in combination with "pop," as in pop art, has resulted in a new term, "poku," which could be used to describe Murakami's recognizable artworks.
These works, primarily paintings and sculptures, feature cartoon-like characters painted in bright colors with a shiny, almost plastic-looking surface. Murakami's best-known character is known as Mr. DOB, a mouselike creature with a round head and large, circular ears. Based on a monkey-like cartoon character originally created in Hong Kong, Mr. DOB has appeared in numerous artworks as well as on such
Murakami has been particularly praised for his public art—works displayed where they can be seen by all—that inspires a childlike pleasure in viewers of all ages. In the fall of 2003 Murakami installed a public art display called Reversed Double Helix at the Rockefeller Center plaza in Midtown Manhattan. The display featured two thirty-three-foot balloons, a number of jewel-colored mushroom sculptures that doubled as seats for visitors, and a twenty-three-foot tall sculpture of Murakami's character Mr. Pointy, known in Japanese as Tongari-kun. Sporting a large round head that comes to a point, multiple arms, and a brightly colored body, Mr. Pointy was described by People magazine as "the whimsical love child of Hello Kitty, a Buddha, and a portabello mushroom." Murakami sold the Mr. Pointy sculpture to the owner of the esteemed auction house Christie's for $1.5 million. Two years earlier he had startled and delighted commuters in Vanderbilt Hall, part of New York City's Grand Central Terminal, with Wink, a display of mushroom sculptures and huge helium-filled balloons hovering thirty feet off the floor—all of which were decorated with brightly colored eyes of all shapes and sizes as well as spirals and other designs.
While Murakami had become well known in art circles in Japan and the United States by the beginning of the twenty-first century, it was his astonishingly successful handbag designs for Louis Vuitton in 2003 that made him a celebrity—especially in Japan, where he suddenly achieved rock-star-like status. Created in conjunction with designer Marc Jacobs, who was heading up a clothing line for Louis Vuitton, Murakami's designs reinvigorated the stately luxury-goods company, making Louis Vuitton bags the hot new must-have item for the wealthy and fashionable. Murakami applied his trademark use of bright, fresh colors to the traditional intertwined "LV" logo, also incorporating some of his signature images, like wide-open cartoon eyes and smiling blossoms. The first Murakami-designed bags sold out even before they reached stores, and over the next several months the bags—priced in the thousands of dollars—flew off the shelves. Tens of thousands of customers put their names on waiting lists to receive Murakami items from future shipments, and numerous imitation versions sprouted up on big-city street corners and Web sites. Sales for the Murakami bags made up about ten percent of Louis Vuitton's yearly revenues, totaling well over $300 million in 2003. Murakami paid a price for his success with the Louis Vuitton bags, however: he had achieved widespread fame, but as a designer of purses rather than as an artist. In an interview with Jim Frederick of Time International in the spring of 2003, Murakami said: "I need to rebuild the wall between the commercial art and the fine art I do. I need to focus on the fine-art side of me for a while."
Murakami has received almost as much attention for the way his works are produced as for the works themselves. In a style reminiscent of one of pop art's most famous practitioners, Andy Warhol (1928–1987), Murakami calls his studios factories. With one factory located outside of Tokyo and one in Brooklyn, New York, Murakami creates his paintings, sculptures, and merchandise with the help of dozens of assistants. He begins by sketching a design, which he then scans into a computer. He refines the picture on-screen, choosing colors and adding his own trademark images—the mushrooms, happy blossoms, eyeballs, and others—which are selected from a digital file of clip art. The picture is then printed onto paper and handed off to the assistants. They silk-screen the outline onto canvas and begin the laborious process of painting. To achieve the candy-shell high gloss of a Murakami work, the assistants must apply layer after layer of acrylic paint, working with anywhere from seventy to eight hundred different colors for one work. Murakami supervises the assistants' painting but rarely applies it to the canvas himself. He told Frederick of Time International that in 1998 he and thirty assistants would spend six months on one large work; five years later, the factories were producing forty works in one year.
Murakami's method of producing paintings results in works that have no depth or perspective—the images seem flat and two-dimensional. Murakami has dubbed this style "superflat," which is, in part, a tribute to the two-dimensional style of some Japanese cartoons. Murakami has also explained the style as a reference to such high-tech devices as flat-screen televisions and computer monitors. The term also reflects the smashing of distinctions between fine art and commercial art, between high culture and low. Murakami told Interview, "In Japan, there is no high and there is no low. It's all flat." Jeff Howe wrote in Wired that "Murakami likes to flaunt that he can make a million-dollar sculpture and then take the same subject and crank out a bunch of tchotchkes [trinkets]." While his aggressive marketing of his own images and his practice of selling inexpensive knick-knacks alongside his high-priced original works have aroused some controversy in the art world, Murakami sees no reason to change. He told Howe that to him, art is "more about creating goods and selling them than about exhibitions." Undoubtedly he will continue to produce valuable works of fine art as well as inexpensive trinkets, working toward a future where the distinction between the two will be gradually diminished.
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