Photograph by Ethan Levitas.
Murakami with his “Cosmos” (2003).
My favorite part of “©Murakami,” a retrospective at the Brooklyn Museum of the juggernautish Japanese artist-entrepreneur Takashi Murakami, was the most controversial element in the show when it originated, at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, last October: a functioning Louis Vuitton outlet, smack in the middle of things, selling aggressively pricey handbags and other bibelots, all Murakami-designed. (Vuitton has reportedly done hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of business in Murakamiana since its deal with the artist began, in 2003.)
Murakami was born in 1962, and came of age at a time when young Japanese chafed at their rehabilitated nation’s banality, which they experienced as impotence in a society whose economic success and, to an extent, cultural fashions hewed to Western models. (An influential philosopher, Akira Asada, dubbed that society’s condition “infantile capitalism.”) A generational sensibility took hold: otaku, which referred to geekish male fans of science-fiction anime, manga, and video games, and came to embrace other defiantly unwholesome obsessions with popular culture. The cyberpunk writer William Gibson defined otaku for the West, in 1996, as being “pathological-techno-fetishist-with-soci
Murakami was the oldest child of a father who had served in Japan’s postwar Self-Defense Forces and a mother who designed textiles. His mother impressed on him that he owed his existence to the chance that the sky above her native city, Kokura, was overcast on August 9, 1945, thus diverting a B-29 to its secondary target, Nagasaki. He took calligraphy classes and attended Buddhist rituals. He was more than encouraged in his study of art. According to the show’s organizer, the MOCA curator Paul Schimmel—in one of several extraordinarily cogent and informative essays in the catalogue—the young Murakami’s parents required him to write papers on exhibitions he visited, which included shows of Renoir and Goya. If he didn’t, they sent him to bed without supper.
The teen-aged Murakami doted on anime, especially a television series in which the immense Japanese battleship Yamato, which was sunk in 1945, soon after its launching, ascends from the ocean floor to fight extraterrestrial invaders. An art student for eleven long years, beginning in 1980 and ending with a Ph.D. from Tokyo National University, he studied nihonga (a Japanese style of painting born in the late nineteenth century as a nativist riposte to Western art) and dabbled in anime. He absorbed conceptualist influences from exhibitions and lectures by Western artists, including Joseph Beuys, Mario Merz, and Christo. The American movement called Neo-Geo, with Koons at its center, spurred Murakami’s interest in art that aped deluxe commodities. His early works included a row of children’s backpacks made from the skins of exotic animals. At the opening of the exhibition in which they were shown, a Shinto priest honored the animals’ departed souls with prayers.
While on a fellowship at P.S. 1, in New York, in 1994, Murakami, already prominent in Japan, gained modest attention with cartoonish paintings. Inspired by Warhol, Koons, and the British master of finely calibrated insolence, Damien Hirst, he founded a literal industry in 1996—the Hiropon Factory. (The name is a slang term for crystal methamphetamine, the most potent in a class of drugs that ease tedious mental labor, dangerously.) The firm was reorganized, in 2001, as Kaikai Kiki Co., and now employs about a hundred workers at facilities in Tokyo and New York, flooding the world with the Murakami brand. Is the result visually monotonous and conceptually supererogatory? So is McDonald’s.
Murakami’s most sensational works are among the first of his artistic maturity, from 1997 and 1998: large, pedestalled figures, in brightly painted fibreglass. One, “Hiropon,” is of a girl with huge breasts spurting streams of milk that join to form a jump rope. Another, “My Lonesome Cowboy,” is of a masturbating boy whose ejaculate twirls upward like a lariat. Similarly gamy is “Second Mission Project ko2,” an outsized Transformer toy representing a naked girl, with a detailed vagina, who, click-clack, becomes an airplane. The characters’ faces beam the big-eyed, manically jolly winsomeness that in anime and manga signals contentment. Anyone susceptible to being tickled and enthralled by that cartoon code may find, in these works, blended quintessences of Heaven and Hell. I don’t get it.
Since then, Murakami has softpedalled sex. His recurrent motifs now include a spherical, toothy, Mickey Mouse-like head, named “DOB” (an acronym referring to an obscure joke); generic flower symbols, sporting button eyes and rictus grins; “jellyfish eyes,” with schematic lashes and light-reflection spots; many-eyed mushrooms, at times morphing into atomic mushroom clouds; and ornamental flourishes that recall Hokusai’s waves. Murakami deploys these icons in torrential abundance. His chief handbag design features a measled field of tiny Vuitton logos, jellyfish eyes, and quatrefoil flowers, in many peculiarly unexciting colors. Murakami used to strike me as the most tin-eyed big-name purveyor of bold color since Peter Max. But the show persuades me that his arbitrary way with gaudy hues is of a piece with his execution of dead-flat acrylic paint surfaces, which look untouched by human hands. His aim, it seems, is to control and standardize aesthetic experience, forcing viewers into a, yes, infantile mold of rote response. He offers us relief from the worry, if also the odd reward, of thinking and feeling as individuals—a blissful submersion in mechanical affect, the same for everybody. Warhol, with his work’s beautiful color and catchy evidence of manual touch, is Rubens by comparison. But Warhol as marketer, not as artist, is Murakami’s lodestar.
Yet far be it from Murakami to sacrifice entirely the niche audience of sophisticated art lovers. Now and again, he palpably strives to muscle up his fine-art bona fides with varieties of abstraction, fierce or doomy narrative (a savage DOB or a monstrous character in death throes), spontaneous-looking brushwork, and knowledgeable references to Japanese and Western art history. There’s an “Homage to Francis Bacon” (2002), a sweet and tarty confection of human torment that I’m not sure the late British master would have appreciated. Pastiches of Surrealism, with jazzy distortions of Murakami’s image repertoire, unfortunately prove that surrealizing what is already surreal cancels rather than amplifies the desired effect. And such tactile enhancements as scraped or drippy surfaces and applications of gold and platinum leaf, though often pretty, unwisely evoke painters who express feelings in what they do. Cynical artists should be careful not to remind us that we like sincerity, or, indeed, that it ever occurs.
Most gravely, for me, Murakami seems temperamentally averse to a cardinal obligation of artists that Warhol, Koons, and Hirst accept: the duty to seduce. But to actively woo the eye and tantalize the mind implies the possible existence of resistant viewers. Murakami assumes—or posits, as a ruling fiction—that we are all already spiritual putty in his hands, whether we admit it or (some people are incorrigibly grouchy) not. There is power in this. It amounts to a theory of and for globalized culture. It invites vicarious identification with the artist’s project—an intellectual rooting interest that is rampant among the catalogue essayists. Unenthused visitors to the show may find themselves, as I did, refreshed in spirit by the simple elegance and honestly avaricious passion of the Vuitton boutique—helping the rich shed their burden of excess capital at a rate pitiably slower than what the art market enables, but in there pitching