Artists can never be 100 percent sure of their legacies. Some die famous and confident they’ll be remembered for generations. If they’re lucky, they might be right.
Thing is, art historians are a selfish bunch, willing and able to rewrite history to suit themselves — and their times.
“When Jasper Johns and Andy Warhol emerged, everyone thought Johns was above Warhol,” says Japanese artist Takashi Murakami, who, for about seven years, has been Japan’s international art world flavor of the month.
“But now, it’s Warhol,” he continues. “Even if Jasper Johns dies now, Warhol will win. And the reason is because people take what they want from history. At one time people wanted Johns’ conservative kind of Pop Art. In today’s world, people want a more aggressive Pop Art, and that’s Warhol.”
On Japanese television, where Murakami is a frequent guest on variety and art-themed shows, he doesn’t look his age, playing with aplomb the role of the otaku artist, complete with baby face, ponytail and oversize wire-rimmed glasses. In person, however, his eyes are creased and puffy, and advertise clearly: “I’m 45 years old.” Equally conspicuous are his confident voice and his big bursts of laughter, which echo through his airy, architect-designed studio in Hiroo, Tokyo.
It is two days before he flies to America on business and five weeks before the most important exhibition of his career: “© MURAKAMI,” a retrospective featuring 16 years of paintings, sculptures and videos at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (LAMOCA). (The exhibition, which starts on Monday, will travel after its run at Los Angeles to the Brooklyn Museum, the Museum fur Moderne Kunst Frankfurt and the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao.)
By any standards — and the art world’s in particular — Murakami should feel on top of the world. And yet he is busy explaining that none of it, the exhibition included, is enough to cement his place in the pantheon.
For that reason, he says, rather than worrying about how history will judge him, “the most important thing is to do what I want, and be true to my times.”
As we talk it becomes clear that for Japan’s most successful artist, this creed now means he must throw down his brushes and embark on something completely new: “I’m devoting myself 100 percent to animation,” he says.
Murakami cynics — and there are a lot of them, particularly in Japan — will no doubt start clapping their hands and cry “I told you so!” They have watched suspiciously as he stole into the national consciousness, first by seducing the West in the late 1990s with a highly formulaic marriage of Japan’s artistic heritage with the subcultures of manga and anime, and then using that fame to gain favor with television stars such as Takeshi Kitano. Without a compelling followup to what they see as his superficial manga-cum-art, they will label him a one-hit-wonder, and a contrived one at that.
A look at his most recent paintings lends credence to their claims. “727-727” (2006), for example, which will be shown at LAMOCA, is simply a remake of a popular work of his from the ’90s. In other paintings, such as his portraits of Zen Buddhism founder, the monk Daruma, which showed at New York’s Gagosian Gallery in May this year, he has added little more than edgy cropping and a vivid palette to what is a Japanese art world standard: Daruma glancing left, face in a grimace.
Perhaps most damning, though, was an exhibition of “body painting” held at Galerie Emmanuel Perrotin in Paris last year, titled “The Pressure Point of Painting.” Purportedly examining the correlations, “discovered by Murakami,” between acupuncture pressure points and visual reference points within a painting, these Yves Klein “living brush” look-alikes were ignored by critics. Perhaps sensing a misfire, Murakami has since ceased covering himself in paint and “making love” to his canvases, as he described the process to one interviewer.
Murakami skeptics will also note that while many collectors are still paying top dollar for his works (“In the deep DOB — Yellow, Green, Pink, Acqua, Blue, Purple [5 parts],” from 1999 topped its estimate by about 150 percent when it sold for almost $1 million at Christie’s London this month), some commentators, such as the dealer Richard Polsky, are sensing a lemon.
Writing on industry Web site Artnet earlier this year, he said that Murakami “is more suited to designing bags for Louis Vuitton (with whom he collaborated for a line of merchandise). Despite the strength of his current market, in my view his long-term prospects are grim.”
Despite the evidence suggesting that the artist has panicked in the face of a stalling career, he’s been intimating a switch to animation all along. In 2001, when asked by magazine Brutus what he would do if he had a spare ¥100 million, he said he’d build an animation studio in Brooklyn. In the same year, when I first interviewed him, he said that art was just a “business” — a means of gaining the freedom to do “what he really wants to do.” Then he could only describe this as “conveying my own kind of dogma.” Now, he says, it means taking control of the only dimension off-limits to painters and sculptors: time.
Explaining the attraction of time-based media, Murakami says, “People are living (in time), and, as an artist, if you are able to provide a period of time during which they can escape and be made to feel kinder, then that is just the happiest thing.”
So what kind of “escapes” does this budding animator have in mind?
Becoming noticeably brighter, he starts explaining the story of his first animation film, which will also be included in the LAMOCA show: “The characters, Kaikai and Kiki, are in this farming village, where the people are farming watermelons. ‘Hey, we want to make watermelons with you!’ they say. They have some trials along the way and in the end they have a festival. (laughs) It’s pretty boring!”
But, he says, this is just the first part (a new part will be made for each of the retrospective’s venues), and he will eventually put six together on DVD.
“When you see all of them I think the meaning that I am trying to convey will be clear, the message that I want to convey to children,” Murakami says.
Children? “It’s not necessarily all happy,” he quickly adds. “It is all a bit distorted — some things are a bit gross, some things are incomprehensible. If children watch it, it will be like, ‘Hey daddy, what is going on? I don’t get it.’ “
Murakami’s staff — which now includes six full-time animators in a total of about 50 in Tokyo (he has another 50 in New York) — also showed me a draft of a music video he is making for rapper Kanye West’s new single “Good Morning” from the album “Graduation.” The video looked a lot like the characters from a Murakami painting had sprung to life; the only problem was that they were no longer vacuous, no longer decorative, no longer mere visual referents on a flat field — as in his paintings. Here Murakami was just telling a story — of a rapper suffering various problems in trying to get to his graduation ceremony.
A fitting topic perhaps for his somewhat unexpected “graduation” from the art world. Is he not worried he too will be given a rough ride?
“I’m not scared,” he says. “I’m proud of the fact that I have the courage to break down what I’ve done in the past.”
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