Japanese society. Murakami straddles the worlds of fine art (painting and sculpture) and commercial art (fashion, animation, merchandise) and his art is known for juxtaposition of cute/scary dynamics, vivid colors, flat, glossy surfaces and life-sized sculptures. Murakami once said to the Interview magazine, “In Japan, there is no high and there is no low. It’s all flat.”
As far as Murakami’s art auction market is concerned, he is regarded as a heavy weight. He is the most influential contemporary name from Asia who enjoys an international market that is only a shade lighter than that of Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons.
Early Life and Education
Born on February 1, 1962 and raised in Tokyo, Murakami was a fan of Japanese anime and manga from a young age. His family placed a high premium on creativity, and both Murakami and his younger brother felt pulled by the world of art. Influenced by a mix of local comics and elements of Western pop culture, he enrolled at the Tokyo University of the Arts to study animation in early 1980s, but went on to earn his BFA, MFA and PhD; the last degree was earned in 1993 in Nihonga — the traditional Japanese paintings.
Birth of an Original Voice
Even while studying Nihonga, Murakami wondered about the dubious status of traditional art forms in contemporary Japan. He found himself increasingly attracted to the world of comics and animation, and to the concept of Kawaii (which roughly translates to ‘cuteness’). He was interested in incorporating pop art into something of mass appeal, citing Disney and famous video game characters as examples. This led to the creation of Mr. DOB, a mouse-like self-portrait and alter ego, who appears often in Murakami’s body of work.
In 1994, Murakami received a year-long fellowship from the PS1 International Studio Program that allowed him to study at MoMa (Museum of Modern Art) in New York City. This exposed him to path-breaking Western contemporary artists such as Jeff Koons and Anselm Kiefer. While studying in New York, Murakami founded a small studio, which became the predecessor to his company, Kaikai Kiki, which he formed in 2001 in Japan. Kaikai Kiki is an art production and art management corporation.
Murakami’s strategy was to establish himself in the art world in the West before moving back to Japan, thereby creating a new kind of audience for himself in his homeland, whose market he considered both derivative and unsustainable in the post-War era. Murakami’s idea was to create something rooted in the essence of his country without isolating its mainstream culture, which was then fascinated by the manga aesthetic. He seized on the concept of ‘low culture’, adopting motifs and characters painted in bright colors, surrounded by flowers and balloons, glossy and flat.
Murakami curated an exhibition titled ‘Superflat’ for the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. In the exhibition catalogue, he enunciated his Superflat theory, which is also his style of art. It blends ethos of the classical Japanese paintings with super-charged contemporary elements of pop, anime and manga genre. The pictures/ sculptures are flattened 2-dimensional works of art. It is also an exploration of the fusion of high and low culture, a characteristic of post-War Japanese society.
The Critics and the Consumers
By mid-1990s, Murakami’s art was featured in solo exhibits at galleries and museums throughout the United States, Japan and Europe. His collaboration with the luxury fashion labels Louis Vuitton and Marc Jacobs propelled his career to stardom in 2003. He incorporated his cartoon motifs of characters with wide eyes and smiling flowers into clothing and accessories – though as a result, Murakami became heavily associated with commercialized work. So much that he admitted in an interview with TIME International, “I need to focus on the fine-art side of me for a while.”
While some have criticized his work for lacking substance, others have hailed Murakami as one of the only living artists to bridge the divide between high and low art, reaching an audience as wide as Andy Warhol or Jean-Michel Basquiat. His public art projects have proved incredibly successful, with a sculpture of his multiple-armed 23-foot tall Mr. Pointy selling for over a million dollars to the owner of Christie’s auction house. His work, known to inspire a childlike joy in viewers, is often grand in scale and characterized by instant lovability.
Murakami’s super flat style emphasizes a lack of perspective and depth – it stays strictly in the realm of appearing two-dimensional, as similar to the two-dimensional style of Japanese cartoons. He is known for and also has been criticized for creating expensive pieces of art but selling cheap trinkets of the original.
The record for the most expensive Murakami work ever sold is held by his acrylic on canvas work called ‘The Castle of Tin Tin’ (1998). It was sold for $4.4 million at a Sotheby’s auction in New York in November 2012.
Murakami’s first retrospective took place at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, the Brooklyn Museum of Art in New York, the Museum für Moderne Kunst in Germany and the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao in Spain from 2007 to 2009, and he was named one of ‘Time’ magazine’s most influential people in 2008. His particular brand of pop art has even been exhibited at the Palace of Versailles in France.
In early 2012, Murakami mounted a show in Qatar titled ‘Murakami-Ego’, which showcased over fifty old works along with some pieces designed specifically for the exhibition. One such new piece was a 100-metre long wall painting illustrating the anguish of those affected by the Fukushima nuclear disaster. In April next year, he released his first feature film, Jellyfish Eyes.
Murakami also organizes GEISAI, a biannual art fair so far held in Tokyo, Taiwan and Miami. It allows artists to design their own booths, shunning pre-chosen galleries, and communicate directly with possible buyers.
1962 - Born in Tokyo
1986 - Completes his BFA in Japanese Painting from the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music
1988 - Receives his MA from the same institute
1993 - Receives his PhD
1995 - Granted the Asian Cultural Fellowship
1998 - Accepts professorship at the School of Art and Architevture at UCLA
1989 - Galerie Ginza Surugadai, Tokyo
1989 - Cafe Tiens!, Tokyo
1991 - Art Gallery of Tokyo
1991 - Galerie Aoi, Osaka
1993 - Hiroshima City Museum of Contemporary Art
1995 - Gallery Koto, Okayama
1997 - Galerie Emmanuel Perrotin, Paris
1997 - Blum & Poe Gallery, Santa Monica
2000 - PS1 Contemporary Art Center, New York
2001 - Grand Central Station, New York
2001 - Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo
2002 - Serpentine Gallery, London
2004 - Stuttgart Museum of Art
2007 - Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles
2010 - Gagosian Gallery, Rome
2013 - Los Angeles County Museum of Art
Museums / collections
Museum of Modern Art, New York,
Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo
Center for CUratorial Studies Museum, Bard College, New York,
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Pinchuk Art Centre, Kiev
Samsung Museum of Art, Seoul
Queensland Museum, Brisbane
Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane
Vanhaerents Art Collection, Brussels
Fondation Cartier pour l'art contemporain, Paris
Musée du sourire, Paris
Rosenblum Collection & Friends, Paris
Punta della Dogana - Francois Pinault Foundation, Venice
Hiroshima City Museum of Contemporary Art
21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, Kanazawa
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Books / publications
“Summon Monsters? Open the Door? Heal? Or Die?” by Takashi Murakami
“Superflat” by Takashi Murakami
“Takashi Murakami: The Meaning of the Nonsense of Meaning” by Amanda Cruz, Hanson Friis and Midori Dana Matsui
“Murakami” by Paul Schimmel