The Geffen Contemporary at MOCA
152 North Central Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90013
October 29, 2007–February 11, 2008
The late 20th century art world had a bad conscience about high art which was vilified as serious, profound, mysterious, spiritual, elitist, pretentious, outmoded and labor-intensive. This led to infatuation with popular culture (silly, superficial, obvious, materialistic, egalitarian, simple, immediate and honest) which still predominates in the new century, and no one better exemplifies this infatuation than Takashi Murakami. His work is the subject of a recent retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art in LA, soon to be seen In Brooklyn.
It is difficult to get past the hype that surrounds Murakami, much of it of his own making, and to separate it from the work itself. It may be that Murakami is trying to cancel such a separation and in so doing is questioning the relationship of art to hype and art to consumerism. The thrust of the erudite and entertaining essays in the lavish catalog that accompanies the show point us in that direction, but I feel that it is the least interesting aspect of Murakami’s work, despite what it might be convenient for him to believe in that it provides him with a dialectic that ultimately justifies his own single-minded money-making as part of a deeper strategy to expose ideological fissures in the art establishment. The Louis Vuitton collaboration in joint marketing is thus an integral part of the gallery space, not merely relegated to the gift store where it might more traditionally belong.
There are other, more interesting, less peripheral, issues with which Murakami’s work confronts the early 21st century viewer. The central issue is whether the traditional linguistic and iconographic resources of western art have exhausted themselves, as so many of its practitioners proclaim with something approaching clockwork regularity, and whether they can be revitalized by a shot in the arm from popular and non-western culture. Of course these situations have arisen before, most notably at the inception of Modernism with its appropriation of tribal, psychotic and children’s art.
What distinguishes Murakami from early modernists is that he originates from the other side of the divide, with his training in Nihonga (traditional Japanese painting) and his obsession with anime and manga. However he is much more of a hybrid than Picasso or Matisse because his own culture has been so deeply inflected by western influence already. Nihonga, in particular, was an attempt to meld Japanese aesthetics with western techniques and spatial structures.
Thus Murakami does not have to be self-conscious about his eclecticism and can quite happily superimpose characters cloned from Mickey Mouse, with the iconography of Buddhism, the stylistic devices of anime and the aesthetics of Muromachi screen painting. The burning question is what all of this adds up to apart from an exercise in fusion. Tan Tan Bo Puking-a,k.a. Gero Tan of 2002 would be my answer. The vast Mickey Mouse-like figure of Tan Tan Bo silhouetted against a flat cerulean sky stands to Murakami’s ego as Guston’s signature kidney-shaped heads do to his. Both artists share a similar fascination with flatness and scale and both extract their imagery from comic book sources. Guston uses Expressioinist bravura handling to immerse his images within a sea of art historical reference, guaranteeing a type of authenticity, whereas Murakami retains the flatness and blandness of his sources. Tan Tan Bo should not be seen in isolation as this character resurfaces in different guises in much of the artist’s work. His features surmount the vast factory built Oval Buddha of 2007, and they are dismembered and abstracted into the decorative dynamics of Edo screen-like canvases such as PO+KU Surrealism Mr DOB-Yellow, Pink, Blue, Purple, Green,1998.
In Tan Tan Bo Puking the narrative exposition explored in earlier canvases approaches something of a climax in the massive simultaneous eructation of multicolored streams of vomit from a face grimacing a mountainous range of black incisors. We might remember that women of the imperial Japanese court also dyed their teeth black. The sublimely childlike world of playful decorative swirls, joyful cumulus clouds, cobalt skies is cataclysmically aborted, giving way to disgust and despair, but not without a sense of tragic grandeur. For me it is almost as if the wonderfully puerile but illusory balloon of pre-adolescent reverie has been inflated to a bursting point, that will yield the dark night of the soul of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, directly referenced in other paintings of Murakami likeTime Bokan-black 2001. Innocence is under a threat that only the sustained opulence of the colors and the mechanically perfect outlines can pretend to withstand. This is surely the most compelling meditation on adolescence since Munch’s Puberty. Here the crisis takes on cosmic proportions and new planetary systems seem to evolve from Tan Tan’s various appendages. The disaster is further compounded by the fact that this canvas is a visual inventory of Murakami’s signature icons, the Laura Ashley flowers, magic mushrooms, DOB heads, grotesque Pokemon eyes, Buddha smiles, decorative spirals, all of them breathing their last in an impending cosmic dissolution that might suggest a more compelling form of self-doubt than we normally associate with Murakami’s self-promotional verbal statements.
Murakami should be judged on works like Tan Tan Bo Puking, on whether it can sustain, the intensity and reach of the paintings with which it aligns itself, like the giant, cartoon-haunted, Crumbesque canvases of Philip Guston, the delicate surrealist cosmogonies of Joan Miro or the exploitation of emptiness in Japanese screen painting. It is Murakami’s surprisingly timeless achievement to have wrung from the unpromising and bland stylistic repertoire of anime and manga, executed by large teams of assistants, an original cosmogony sustained by an emotional intensity and conceptual sophistication that renders his flirtation with the world of consumerism at most a side-show and ultimately unnecessary. For me his artistic pedigree derives from Bosch, Guston, Miro and Jakuchi, not Warhol and Koons, as the essays in the catalog suggest.