Boy Wonder

Los Angeles

Left: MoCA chief curator Paul Schimmel, artist Takashi Murakami, and MoCA director Jeremy Strick. Right: Alexis Phifer and Kanye West. (Photo: Patrick McMullan)

“You’re our first Murakami visitor,” noted dealer Rodney Hill when my Thursday-afternoon cannonball run through Los Angeles galleries paused at Marc Foxx. Nearly everyone I spoke with that day proffered an opinion or recounted a rumor about Museum of Contemporary Art chief curator Paul Schimmel’s Takashi Murakami survey and its copious bill of opening-weekend events. With promotional billboards dotting the LA streetscape, a feature on LA Weekly’s cover (aptly titled “Resistance Is Futile”), specially commissioned videos on the museum’s website, and the presence in the exhibition of a fully functional Louis Vuitton pop-up shop (itself the subject of a late-summer media brouhaha), the city is so saturated with “© Murakami” that the artist’s signature “Jellyfish Eyes” began to seem panoptic.

One Culver City dealer summed up the chatter succinctly, offering a lament for local heroes (“They just want to replicate the blockbuster success of the Warhol survey five years ago. But why haven’t they given this push to our best hometown artists—Kelley, Baldessari, McCarthy?”) before conceding to a wait-and-see policy. Out of respect for Schimmel’s long tenure in LA, which has included three previous outings with Murakami (“Superflat” and “Public Offerings” in 2001; “Ecstasy” in 2005–2006), even the most disapproving of those I spoke with eventually admitted they’d reserve final judgment for the show itself.

At Friday morning’s media preview, as we peered through the wall of television crews encircling museum director Jeremy Strick, MoCA deputy director Ari Wiseman cited the collaboration with Louis Vuitton for the unprecedented cross-disciplinary press interest. The shop is a publicity masterstroke: Not only did it catch the attention of media outlets only fitfully interested in contemporary art, it also generated the most preopening conversation among cognoscenti of any US museum show this season. Architecturally, the boutique is relatively innocuous, tucked away on the Geffen Contemporary’s small mezzanine level, its entrance and logo facing a rear wall. Yet it remained somewhat dispiriting to be made conscious of being priced out within the more or less democratic arena of the museum.

Left: MoCA deputy director Ari Wiseman with MoCA trustee Ruth Bloom and Rebecca Bloom. Right: Takashi Murakami with dealer Tim Blum.

That said, the overwhelming majority of the exhibition, which was blessed prior to its opening by a Shinto priest, naturally focuses on Murakami’s fine-art output: paintings, sculptures, installations, videos, and films. There are innumerable paths through the forest of signs that is Murakami’s practice, many of which Schimmel outlined in conversation. When prompted to locate this show in the context of the psychological undertow that characterizes the art of Charles Ray and Robert Gober, with whom he has organized exhibitions in the past, Schimmel replied, “I think that is the most underappreciated aspect of the work. We keep seeing it in terms of broader social implications of Japan and America, the contrast between high and low or Asian traditions and western-European traditions, but when Murakami talks about trying to create ‘my reality,’ that is, in fact, something autobiographical.”

The exhibition bears out something close to this claim. What surprises about the works on view is neither the East-West dichotomies Schimmel outlined nor the uniquely corporate production strategies that created them, both subjects addressed at length in discussions of Murakami’s art. Rather, it’s the rampant proliferation of bodies and bodily fluids. From the hypersexual, adolescent depictions of semen and breast milk in Hiropon, My Lonesome Cowboy, Cream, and Milk, to the mechanized female nudes in Second Mission Project ko˛, to the psychedelic vomit of Tan Tan Bo Puking—aka Gero Tan, to Inochi’s awkward sexual discoveries, to the centrality of shit in the recent animation kaikai & kiki, to the impotent protagonist in Dharma, Murakami’s first live-action film (a trailer for which is on view), tracing the appearance of bodies and what they discharge dramatizes a fascinating naďveté regarding sexuality that arcs from unreal fantasy to unflinching self-portraiture.

It was not only odd but also uncomfortably fitting, then, to hear attendees report that MoCA trustee Rosette Delug hired several Playboy Playmates to pose as so many nude, body-painted Miss Kokos at the dinner she hosted at her home on Friday night. The event was one of many surrounding the exhibition; with so many visitors from Japan, New York, and Europe, Angelenos pulled out all the stops, creating an environment redolent of an art-fair week. Tim Blum and Jeff Poe, who have represented Murakami for eleven years, hosted a dinner for the artist and his collaborators on Thursday at Kumo, Michael Ovitz’s new sushi restaurant. On Saturday morning, dealers Larry Gagosian and Philippe Ségalot, collector David Teiger, artist Chiho Aoshima, thirty-odd members of a museum trustee group from Miami, and roughly one hundred other guests admired the multiple Judds, Princes, Hirsts, and Rymans in the modernist Beverly Hills home of MoCA trustee Eugenio Lopez and ate brunch at tables set up in its backyard. Some then rushed back across town for an afternoon symposium on animation with Murakami, Dreamworks Animation SKG CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg, Tokyo Pop’s Stu Levy, and the directors of Dreamworks’ new Bee Movie.

Left: Dealer Jeffrey Deitch, collector Susan Hancock, and Kulapat Yantrasast of wHY Architecture. (Photo: Yoshihiro Makino) Right: Naomi Campbell. (Photo: Patrick McMullan)

While seventy-five hundred guests mobbed the Geffen Contemporary on Saturday night, I found temporary relief from the onset of Murakami madness at a smattering of gallery openings. I arrived at Regen Projects right at 6 PM, giving me time to experience Glenn Ligon’s series of black-on-gold joke paintings relatively unimpeded, then hurried south for the opening of Nicole Eisenman’s new exhibition at Susanne Vielmetter. Eisenman’s imagination is as weirdly fecund as ever, as evidenced by grids of works on paper in Vielmetter’s side galleries and full-length portraits of Hamlet and of an astronaut in the main space. In Chinatown, newcomer Erica Redling, a onetime China Art Objects director whose gallery is housed in Walead Beshty’s former Hill Street studio, presented a tight installation of new abstract films and photograms by New Yorker Amy Granat; across the street, David Kordansky exhibited small works on paper by Don Van Vliet (aka Captain Beefheart).

It was, however, the preview in Culver City of collector Sue Hancock’s new retail store/art gallery/lounge, Royal/T, that offered the evening’s most unique impressions. Housed behind a bright green storefront facade a few blocks down Washington Boulevard from the gallery strip on La Cienega, the venue featured servers dressed up like naughty maids, a DJ, design-oriented salable goods, and—behind large sheets of Plexiglas—selections from Hancock’s collection, from Yoshitomo Nara to Tracey Emin to Franz West. My companions immediately pegged the environment as “very Japanese” in its immersive blend of retail concepts, a fact confirmed in conversation with Takaya Goto and Lesley Chi, the New York–based designers responsible for its realization, who cited venues catering to otaku—geeks, often obsessed with anime or manga—as Royal/T’s conceptual source.

Sunday evening’s MoCA benefit gala, featuring a performance by Kanye West followed by dinner for more than nine hundred guests, proved once and for all the unprecedented nature of this collaborative endeavor. West’s energetic half-hour medley managed to rouse even a few of the more phlegmatic VIPs seated in front of the stage, and included a brief freestyle rap that hilariously name-checked French Vogue editor in chief Carine Roitfeld. By the time West got to his current single, “Stronger,” the temporary pavilion’s floors were shaking; then, as quickly as the song ended, he disappeared into a cloud of smoke. “Follow the Miss Kokos to dinner,” came the PA announcement, and the dozen dolled-up women who had stood idly posing during cocktail hour shepherded the crowds through a ten-foot-tall portal shaped like a Louis Vuitton steamer trunk.

Left: Paul Schimmel at the press conference. Right: Collector Eileen Harris Norton with Kris Kiramitsu, independent curator and programs director for Creative Link for the Arts. (Photos: Brian Sholis)

On the other side of the mirror-lined L-shaped passageway was the cavernous gallery that last hosted the entirety of Andrea Zittel’s traveling survey, now ringed with a twenty-foot-tall, football-field-length animated video projection of an allover pattern of Murakami’s signature “Flowers of Joy,” some gently drifting down the wall like snowflakes. Ninety-two tables for ten surrounded an elevated central platform from which Strick announced that the evening had raised $1.6 million for the museum and ushered in an “age of Murakami.” What this portends for the ever-competitive art world remains to be seen; certainly it will be tough for MoCA—or any museum, for that matter—to operate at such a fever pitch on a sustained basis. Murakami, half giggling with excitement as he thanked his collaborators from the dais, related that the Louis Vuitton shop’s “sales last night were a very great amount.” Recounting the initiation of his collaboration with Jacobs, the artist said, “He asked me, and I said yes,” then continued, “All I did to the logo was change the color . . .”

Left: Takashi Murakami with designer Marc Jacobs. (Photo: Patrick McMullan) Right: MoCA Gala chair Maria Bell.

Left: Ellen Degeneres and Portia di Rossi. (Photo: Patrick McMullan) Right: Dealer Emmanuel Perrotin. (Photo: Brian Sholis)

Left: Servers at Royal/T's Opening. (Photo: Yoshihiro Makino) Right: Serena Williams. (Photo: Patrick McMullan)