Some people just can’t help liking Japan.
That’s the message one gets from the effervescent Tim Blum and his only slightly more taciturn partner Jeff Poe, co-owners of the Los Angeles-based Blum & Poe art gallery, which this week takes the bold step of opening a new gallery space in Tokyo.
Why bold? Well, as Blum readily admits, “There really is no collector base in Tokyo. It just doesn’t really have a (contemporary) art market, not a real one. Sure there are some collectors, but, you know, not a real (market).”
The hot spot for art galleries in Asia right now is, of course, Hong Kong — with its more-or-less direct access to China’s nouvelle riche. Not only does the city host the important annual Art Basel art fair, but it has recently attracted satellite spaces for several large international galleries — Gagosian, White Cube and Lehmann Maupin to name a few.
No one can really remember when the last major American gallery had a presence in Japan, though it was probably the Pace Wildenstein Tokyo gallery that ceased operations in the 1990s.
So if it wasn’t for the ripe business opportunities, why the decision to open a space in Tokyo?
Blum good-naturedly rolls his eyes back at the obviousness of it all.
“If you want to check out the greatest that the world can offer — not even Asia, but the greatest in the world — in architecture, art, fashion, film, design, city, music, food, it’s here (in Tokyo). This is where everybody wants to be. Everybody wants to go to Tokyo,” he enthuses.
Blum’s love for the city is no one-nightstand. He spent four years working here in his 20s, from 1990, from 1990 to 1994, and the experience and contacts he made have had a considerable impact on his and the gallery’s fortunes since.
“I grew up (in Tokyo),” he says of those days. I worked on the corner of Omotesando and Meiji-dori for years.” Surveying the view afforded by the gallery’s fifth-floor home in a brand new building in Jingumae, he continues, “This was my hood.”
Blum and Poe opened their gallery almost as soon as the former returned from Japan to Santa Monica, in 1994, and the two of them wasted no time in tapping his Japan connections for artists.
In 1995, they held a solo show for Yoshitomo Nara, giving the man who has since become one of Japan’s most iconic contemporary artists his first real break overseas.
At that point, Nara had already fairly well developed the kind of paintings of children and animals with serenely nuanced facial expressions that became his trademark, and Blum reports that even though Nara had “zero market” in the United States at that time, the show sold out.
Shows for another then-unknown but now-iconic artist, Takashi Murakami, quickly followed, as did group and other solo shows related to the movement that Murakami famously defined with the term “superflat.”
Soon Blum and Poe were at the center of a whirlwind of global interest in Japanese contemporary art, and they were representing the two key artists — Nara and Murakami.
When asked if he was surprised at the extent of that success, Blum bristles.
“People were, like, wow that’s so weird. And you’re like, why? That was an expression of the then-dominant Western perception — the idea that it would be somehow weird for those artists to succeed. Japan has a rich culture that is much revered and beloved worldwide, so why wouldn’t the art be too?”
Poe chimes in with some context: “We were there at a time when the definition of the art world was Western. And we just happened to be there at that moment when it actually changed to become a world. It truly is now, but not then. We were just there at that moment it changed.”
Nara and Murakami continue to be commercial stars in the Japanese contemporary art world. While Murakami works with several galleries, Nara is now represented globally and exclusively by Blum & Poe — and he is likely one of the best performers in a stable that also now includes many American and other artists, too.
Nara’s large oil-on-canvas paintings, which he produces at a rate of around two dozen per year, each command up to $650,000. And then there are all the drawings and, somewhat less frequently, sculptures, too.
Blum & Poe’s Tokyo gallery director Ashley Rawlings explains that “all the solo shows sell out” and says of the paintings that “there is definitely a long waiting list of people who want these.”
Sales of Nara’s works would doubtless have continued apace with or without the new Tokyo space, but the mind-boggling sums that that representation deal presumably generates for the gallery helps one understand Blum and Poe’s sentiment when they state that the other, primary, reason for setting up a gallery in Tokyo is “to be near our Japanese artists.” Nara’s, in particular, is clearly a relationship that is worth the close care.
That said, the gallery goes to extraordinarily lengths to grow its stable of Japanese artists, too. Two years ago, they “gave free rein” to a curator, Mika Yoshitake, to put on a show of 1960s and ’70s Japanese Mono-ha art in their Los Angeles space.
“Requiem for the Sun: The art of Mono-ha” has been widely credited with setting off a boom in Japanese postwar art, and the gallery has followed through with continued representation for several of the movement’s now-aging key artists.
Blum and Poe say that they are open to other similar historical shows, too, possibly at the new Tokyo space. “We want to mix it around here,” Poe says. “We’ll start with some LA artists, cross-pollinate. We could use it as a project space for people we don’t represent, too.”
The gallery’s inaugural show, “Sublime Memory Garden,” which features American Dave Muller — a painter with a fascination for late 20th-century pop culture and its one-time analog delivery systems that is sure to strike a chord with Japan’s record and CD-collector culture — opens to the public on Sept. 19.
Blum & Poe’s new Tokyo gallery is at 1-14-34 Jingumae, Shibuya-ku, across the road from Harajuku Station. For more details, visit www.blumandpoe.com