Takashi Murakami

Bard Center for Curatorial Studies

Though the works of Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, et al. long ago settled comfortably into the canon, the spores germinating from their carcasses may have left even the most sympathetic, Pop-attuned viewers rather eye-glazed. Just about every earthly enclave that today sustains the battle-weary culture of “high” contemporary art has been overtaken by the slick of “Neo-Pop.” Japanese artist Takashi Murakami’s work as a painter, sculptor, “conceptual” impresario, and unapologetic, indeed gleeful vendor of pop-cultural effluvia may seem all too easily accommodating when it comes to the sort of Exxon Valdez mediacratic spillage in the galleries of New York and Los Angeles. But if the temptation to regard Murakami as yet another metastasis of the Pop consciousness is, in the most obvious, dunderheaded way, “correct,” it fails to account for the artist’s specificity—in short, his originality.

Until recently a fairly obscure figure on the American art scene, Murakami was educated in the Nihon-ga tradition of Japanese painting, a Meiji-era innovation that sought to combine traditional styles and subjects with forms and motifs derived from the West. Indeed, he is a star of sorts within this relative parvenu among art forms, having received in 1993 the first Ph.D. in Nihon-ga from the Tokyo National University. The training has served him well, on the evidence of the meticulously crafted paintings he showed at Bard, works so pristine in execution that even at close range they look like silk-screens, though on intimate inspection, often from an oblique angle, they reveal themselves as hand painted. Indulging in a bit of ethnopsychology, one might say that only a Japanese person could achieve such marvels of finish-fetish.

The Bard show, subtitled “The Meaning of the Nonsense of Meaning,” demonstrated the variety of Murakami’s endeavors, from painting and sculpture to the Warholian nobodies-as-superstars piece Kase Taishuu Project, 1994. Here the artist enlisted students to impersonate the aforementioned entertainment personality, who in a dispute with management lost the right to use his own name and was summarily replaced. The second-generation fakes that Murakami introduced were so successful that they began to accrue their own cult followings, a phenomenon leading to a visit from certain organized-crime representatives who prevailed upon the artist to discontinue his art project, as it was interfering with a profitable brand-name’s (purloined) identity. One can only dream of someone like Jeff Koons rattling the econo-ecosystem of, say, Las Vegas in similar fashion. It’s heartening to see a culture that takes its inauthenticity so seriously.

The bulk of the Bard exhibition, however, was devoted to Murakami’s more visually splendid sculptures and paintings, in which he takes as his subject the pullulating fecundity of Japanese manga and anime—comics and animation, for those of you (not) born yesterday—and the weird otaku world greedily feeding off them. Otaku means “geek,” the culture of typically male shut-ins obsessed to the point of mania with Japan’s comics/ animation/video-game industries. In particular, Murakami is fascinated with the bizarre humus breeding hybrids of violence, sex, and surrealistic cuteness. In short: Electro-vaginal amazons fuck and do battle with sabre-toothed Hello Kitty mutants. Or shimmering-eyed pubescent boys sport Exocet-missile members in their battle against the demonoids. It’s fun. Murakami’s best-known works to date (Hiropon, 1997, and My Lonesome Cowboy, 1998) are two life-size male and female figures endowed with extrahuman . . . well, you know, thingies. Avatars of hypersexualized yet requisitely cutesy fantasy, they derive from the not-so-shadow realm of manga and anime—the oneiric domain of computer nerds, one assumes, or teenage girls with a thing for boy-on-boy love.

For all the bravado of conception behind the big sculptures, Murakami’s apparently more sedate paintings provide no less bizarre pleasures. For several years, the artist has been at work on his own signature cartoon character, Mr. DOB. At first glance, there is no missing the similarity between Murakami’s creature and Mickey Mouse, like animation in general a wildly successful American import in the years immediately following World War II. (A detour via a brief fragment by Walter Benjamin: “Mickey Mouse proves that a creature can still survive when it has thrown off all resemblance to a human being. He disrupts the entire hierarchy of creatures that is supposed to culminate in mankind.” For the still-humanistic Benjamin, the presumed loss of humanity is a bummer. The popular arts, though, suggest that sometimes it is a relief.) Recently, though, the formerly moronically smiling Mr. DOB has been replaced by a twisting, metamorphic, The Thing-ish version with leering grins and gnashing teeth. Maintaining the balance and interplay of cutesy and monstrous, the morphing DOB finds its counterpoint in the exquisite paintings of schematic flowers. The petals of each surround beaming smiley faces. Unsurprisingly, the demented, frozen smile is more unsettling than the more personality-rich maws of the DOBzillae.

Murakami is untroubled by the fracture between high and popular art, one that still compels artists in the West to work within the art system and the established, critico-symptomatic procedures of Pop. Like other popular Japanimation characters, Mr. DOB is now a registered trademark, with his own legions of fans. Murakami happily turns out stuffed animals, watches, and so on. I bought two T-shirts at Bard; I really like them.

David Rimanelli is a contributing editor of Artforum.