New York

Takashi Murakami

Japan’s big twenty-first-century export is cuteness, and it’s one of Takashi Murakami’s favorite modes, infusing his mushrooms, flowers, and the ubiquitous Mr. DOB. In Murakami’s latest gallery show, a panda appears in a sculpture, several paintings, and a video. This cute animal is beloved for its abject qualities: oversize head, chubby body, stubby limbs, delicate constitution, big sad eyes, and sexual problems in captivity. The great cultural critic Daniel Harris has written, “Because it aestheticizes unhappiness, helplessness and deformity, [cuteness] almost always involves an act of sadism on the part of its creator.” As usual, Murakami turns the tables: His giant fiberglass cutie grins menacingly and, in the video, turns vicious, gleefully swallows a little girl’s cell phone, then swallows the girl.

The main focus of the show, however, is not manga characters or superflat landscapes but a designer monogram, specifically the famous Louis Vuitton LV—not an export but an import (although the LV logo, with its stylized lotus flower, was itself a product of nineteenth-century French Japonisme). Like the Vuitton handbags that Murakami designed for this season, this group of new paintings, scrolls, sculptures, and animations takes the famous symbol as its primary motif. If Warhol (correctly) saw the ordinary, mass-produced good as the emblem of the ’60s, Murakami now points happily to the luxury name-brand tchotchke.

At the turn of the century, Paris fashion houses stenciled their names discreetly on their clothes’ inside waistbands, and Cézanne, for one, often left his works unsigned. But you could tell a Vionnet by its cut, and, as the critic Gustave Geffroy put it, Cézanne’s works were signed, marked by his inimitable style. Today, fashion items—the T-shirt and the tote bag—are less distinctive, and it’s the capital C, the double G, the LV (even the déclassé DKNY) that shoppers seek out. Successful artists have become recognizable celebrities and, arguably, trademarks and corporate entities.

Because Murakami seems to celebrate (or at least absorb) rather than critique this situation, I had the feeling that I was going to hate this show. But I sort of loved the bland sweetness of it all; the artist managed to match his s/m cuteness with an equally repulsive and attractive version of consumer desire.

But what was most revealing here was not a product but labor itself: Young Japanese men and women working away quietly on the painting The World of Sphere, 2003. In the post-Warhol world, the use of assistants per se is certainly no revelation. But unlike traditional process-oriented art that wears its work on its sleeve (from Chuck Close to Santiago Sierra), Murakami’s art has a touchless industrial finish much like that of any mass-produced commodity. If it’s difficult to associate human labor with the Murakami gloss, it’s easy enough to see a link between his industrious assistants and the sweatshop workers who make the knockoff handbags for which Louis Vuitton is, after all, best known (Murakami’s version has been available for months on New York streets). In art, the role of contributor or collaborator is often given a happy collective spin, but (like cuteness) it has a dark side, one unrelieved by the fact that the assistants sign each “Murakami,” very discreetly, on the back.

Katy Siegel