Progression of Art
My Lonesome Cowboy
This sculpture, depicting an anime figure, shows a life-sized naked boy masturbating, as his white semen in stylized spirals, swirls around him like a lasso, forming a jagged shape above his head that is both oddly weaponized and plane-like. The boy has the wide-eyed, gleeful gaze and characteristic spiky hair of an anime character. In the late 1990s, what some art historians have called Murakami's "bodily fluids" stage, he depicted highly sexualized otaku figures, like this one, as well as his Hiropon (1997) which depicts a woman with oversized breasts that spray a stream of milk encircling her figure.
The work's exaggeration of sexual features evokes earlier shunga, or erotic images, from ukiyo-e, which often depicted exagerrated genitalia. Shunga's depictions emphasized the erotic encounter, whereas Murakami's figures are isolate and static, suggesting sexual prowess void of human connection. The art critic Roberta Smith wrote that Murakami's figures have, "the odd thrill of seeing a fictional cartoon, which normally inhabits a television screen, made three-dimensional and life size." This thrill of the fictional made real, along with the erasure of boundaries between otaku figurines and art world sculpture or between sexual imagery and children's cartoons, was both shocking and innovative in contemporary art and launched the artist's global career.
The title of the sculpture refers to Andy Warhol's film, Lonesome Cowboys (1968), and thus posits it as a wink to Pop art, an earlier movement which also drew inspiration from popular and commercial culture.
The work has become among the most famous works by the artist, due to its $15 million sale price at a 2008 art auction. The sale of the work was fiercely condemned in Japan, and critics remain divided. Art critic Grace McQuilten said the piece represented "commodity fetishism."
Oil, acrylic, fiberglass, and iron - Private collection
This work presents Murakami's iconic Mr. DOB, a whimsical but maniacal mouse-like character, with many eyes and appendages, baring his shark-like smile while riding a stylized wave that swirls from upper left to the right center. The wave, a parody of Hokusai's ukiyo-e treatment in The Great Wave (c. 1830-1832) visually unites all three panels. The use of three panels, simultaneously suggests a modern Western triptych and a Japanese byobu, or traditional folding screen, implying that Mr. DOB conquers both worlds and flattens the distinctions between them.
Mr. DOB is known as Murakami's alter ego. Its name is a contraction of "dobojite, dobojite," a dada-like phrase taken from the manga Inakappe Taisho, which means "why? why?" DOB is always spelled out on the character's face, D on one ear, B on the other, his round face representing the O, so that in all of his transmutations, he is instantly recognizable. The use of text reflects the influence of the works of Barbara Kruger and Jenny Holzer, who were introduced to the Japanese art world in the early 1990s when Murakami created Mr. DOB. The influence of anime and manga can also be seen in DOB's cartoon-like appearance and large eyes, and the manga catlike character Doraemon influenced his large red open mouth and nose.
Viewers cannot avoid the obvious connection to Disney icon Mickey Mouse, which is here transfigured into a very different figure, with its snarling smile and crazed expression, as if the character embodies the antagonism the artist felt toward America and the Western art world at the time he first created the figure in 1993. The piece draws upon the Japanese use of ma or negative space, and its many layers of paint, resembling traditional lacquer, have been scraped, to create the sense of a Japanese folding screen, in ruin. The title refers to U.S airplanes that were stationed at bases in Japan that frequently flew over the artist's childhood home, and suggests that Mr. DOB, riding his wave, is a kind of Japanese counter force, given impetus by art.
Murakami said, "The work is not particularly representative of anything. It is simply a combination of all the available techniques that I had at the time," but the character became the signature of his brand. His aim, as he said, was "market survivability - the universality of characters such as Mickey Mouse, Sonic the Hedgehog, Doraemon, Miffy, Hello Kitty, and their knock-offs produced in Hong Kong," As art historian Grace McQuilten wrote, Murakami's DOB functions as "commercial branding," and in the realms of art and commerce, "celebrates the depthless nature of consumerism."
Murakami has depicted the character in many works, like his neon colored and psychedelic treatment Hands Clasped (2015). Mr. DOB has been widely reproduced in posters, t-shirts, key chains, and bubble gum dispensers, among other products. Yet, as art critic Christopher Knight noted, "Murakami is the first major artist, Eastern or Western, to make our pervasive culture of branding a primary subject."
Synthetic polymer paint on three canvas moderns - Museum of Modern Art, New York, New York
A to Z Memorial Dog
This large-scale sculpture depicts a standing white dog in cartoon simplification with closed eyes, its face serenely reminiscent of a Buddha in meditation, posed in some moment of inner stillness. The use of white, evoking traditional Japanese associations of the color with the spirit or ghost world, creates a sense of the otherworldly, despite the cute familiarity of the cartoon dog,
Nara first began depicting this cartoonish figure of a white dog in the 1990s. It has become one of his most iconic works, reproduced on t-shirts, pull toys, stuffed toys, and other items, and also made into a popular children's book, The Lonesome Puppy (2008). He also depicted a white dog in other works, most notably his Aomori ken (Aomori dog) a two story high sculpture of a white dog that is a signature work at the Aomori Museum of Art in Japan.
With these large scale works depicting animals, Nara draws upon the Japanese and Chinese tradition of komainu, large statues, usually of lions and dogs, meant to convey awe and power when placed at the gateways of temples. As a result, the work evokes a sense of the sacred.
The cuteness of the figure, suggests a child's unique perception of scale and feeling, where a pet dog may loom over one and also take on a larger-than-life significance in one's life. Yet the overall effect is melancholic, as the dog conveys a sense of both self-isolation and loneliness, as if embodying Nara's description of his own childhood, "I could communicate better with animals, without words, than communicating verbally with humans." A child's toy here becomes a monumental artwork drawing the contemporary viewer in with its charming simplicity, while hooking the viewer with its totemic and symbolic feeling.
Fiberglass - Yoshino-cho Park in Hirosaki, Japan
This print, depicting a post-apocalyptic future, shows a glowing city where living skyscrapers with cute human faces curve up like sinuous tubeworms into the sky. In the center of the work, a yellow and black patterned form like that of an unknown species, part animal, part human torso, looks out of its inky black face with one red and one yellowish green glowing eye, rising out of the earth to confront the viewer. In the foreground a flowering tropical forest is curiously out of scale, as some blossoms are the height of palm trees, suggesting a world mutating into riotous new forms. The sky between the buildings opens up to a plethora of stars at the top of the print, radiating in different colors and intensities of glow, creating a correspondence with the eyes and antennae of the living buildings. A golden phoenix trailing a red ribbon flies in the left upper middle distance.
The effect is ambiguous, suggesting both a city haunted by spirits, and a world where human inventions have evolved into amorphous beings. The work is both melancholic, as if permeated by a sense of ecological loss, and vibrant, wondrous with a sense of what new strange beings might evolve. The artist has said, "The evolution of human civilization is great; humankind thinks nature precious, but it is difficult for humankind and nature to coexist. I represented these two souls that cannot understand each other through the images of buildings and mountains."
Aoshima's works begin as sketches that she transfers into Adobe Illustrator, employing countless vectors, modified into curvilinear, organic shapes, before filling with color. She combines this modern technology with what she calls, "the re-appropriation of ukiyo-e's linear aesthetics," and her subject matter is often influenced by ukiyo-e, as she notes the influence of, "Katsushika Hokusai, especially his art depicting yokai (the supernatural beings of Japanese folklore)," upon her work.
This work was displayed in New York City's Union Square subway station as part of Murakami's 2005 Little Boy project and was also used in the artist's first animation, a seven-minute collaboration with New Zealand animator Bruce Ferguson. The animation, displayed on five screens, begins with this image, and then moves into images of a flooded forest, a red cemetery inhabited by various ghosts, a screaming head filling the screen as bees swarm out of its mouth, and a new day with blue skies, fairies, and a rainbow. The art curator Paul Schimmel has described it as "one of the most extraordinary pieces of animation ever made by an artist, period... The use of the sweeping horizontal composition and the movement and timing of it are absolutely breathtaking."
Chromogenic print - Blum & Poe, Los Angeles/Galerie Perrotin
V W X Yellow Elephant Underwear, H I J Kiddy Elephant Underwear
This work depicts two yellow elephants with pink toenails and brown ears, wearing underpants that have a bright pattern of stars, elephant heads, circles, and little underpants. The large elephant stands on a lime green rectangular platform. Behind the elephant is a heap of dung made of brightly colored rings. The smaller elephant, standing on a lime green square, at first seems to suggest that this is a mother and her calf, but the underpants disrupt that assumption, conveying that, whatever their relationship, neither is fully grown-up. Because they are wearing clothing, the figures appear to be stuffed toys, but their boxy forms are also reminiscent of the paired statues of powerful animals that traditionally guarded the entrances to Japanese sacred places.
Elephants and underwear are the artist's signature motifs, also expressed in paintings and drawings. This was her first sculpture, shown at New York City's Dorris C. Freedman Plaza as part of Murakami's exhibition Little Boy: The Arts of Japan's Exploding Subculture. The image of elephants come from the artist's childhood, but are also, as the art critic Roberta Smith noted, the "bright, patterned, underpants," are "distilled emblems of innocence and femininity." The artist has said of both motifs, "These things are like talismans. It's scary to imagine that someday I won't exist in this world anymore. I am troubled by the urge to run away from this fear. Elephants make me feel safe. They have saved me many times." It is this element of psychoanalysis, cloaked within a disarming appearance of cuteness that makes Ban's work distinctive, both emblematic of gender and of national constructs. As curator Tom Eccles noted of the two elephants, "They're ...both familiar and uncanny."
Fiber-reinforced plastic, steel, acrylic paint, urethane - Marianne Boesky Gallery, New York
This work shows another of Nara's signature subjects, a girl with a jagged haircut who, standing in negative space, stares forward with wide eyes. Her large eyes, whimsically colored in subtle variations of green, orange, and yellow refract pinpoints of light and suggest depths of feeling that both draw in the viewer and remain undisclosed. Combined with her posture and the flat line of her mouth, her stare becomes both confrontational and meaningful, its intensity contrasting with the kawaii cuteness. The girl's features are precisely outlined, as is her figure against the broad flat background, While the artist's color palette reflects his later work, using softer more subtle tones, the reliance upon line, as seen as the curve of her downturned mouth, her jaw and lower face as if holding back words, all emphasized by the echoing curve of the neckline of her clothing, create the work's effect of powerful, ambivalent feeling.
While art critics have noted the traditional Japanese elements employed in Nara's work, they have often attributed the influence to manga and anime. But Nara has said that such is not the case and that his work draws upon the earlier Japanese traditions like ukiyo-e. Though unlike the woodblock prints, Nara's images are painted on a large scale, and as New York Times art critic Kenneth Noland notes, "Nara blends high and low by combining the saturated color and scale of postwar abstract painting with a cast of cute but demonic cartoon characters."
Nara has said that his many images of a single girl are images of himself, the crooked haircut reminiscent of his haircut in childhood. The children are representative of some inner self with a sharp, antagonistic intelligence, and a dark feeling at odds with the adult world. As the art critic David Pagel wrote, "The dark side of childhood may not be something adults like to think about. But it takes haunting shape in Yoshitomo Nara's wide-ranging exhibition... its presence all the more potent for being subdued." What Pagel called, "Nara's signature style - of nuanced cartoons," changed contemporary art by using cartoons to create portraits full of ambiguous and haunting feeling.
Acrylic on canvas - Private collection
Eye Love SUPERFLAT
This work employs ninety-seven colors in a pattern combining the LV signature logo of designer Louis Vuitton with Murakami's own signature image of jellyfish eyes on a white background. The effect is both intricate and decorative, the flattened artwork being simultaneously seen as art and a pattern for wallpaper, fabric, or other consumer items. This image developed out of Murakami's collaboration with Louis Vuitton which began in 2002 and lasted until 2015, resulting in a popular series of handbags, as well as luggage, and other items. While working on the collaboration, Murakami began developing the image of jellyfish eyes as a signature of his own brand.
Murakami has often been called "the Japanese Andy Warhol," for his mix of art and consumerism that challenges the distinction between the two. However, art critics remain divided as to whether his work is a critique of global consumerism or simply an exploitation of it. Following the noted success of the commercial line, the artist recreated the same patterns and images as artworks, creating this pattern on different color backgrounds, at first black and white, then blue and pink, which were shown at noted art museums. His 2007 "© Murakami" show at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art included a Louis Vuitton boutique featuring his products. While art critic David Hickey criticized the show as having "turned the museum into an upscale Macy's," while art critic Christopher Knight noted, "The copyright symbol reads as a defiant, paradoxical assertion that the artist - not the private collector or public museum - retains perpetual ownership of the art-idea." Eye Love Superflat, in all its permutations from artwork to consumer object, brings that concept of the object as the artist's copyrighted "art-idea" to contemporary art.
Acrylic on canvas laid on board - Private Collection
Across Two Hundred Years We Send Our Blessings
This color-saturated painting creates a fantasy world that both evokes the Japanese past and suggests a futuristic world. In it are five girls, depicted in a style derived from manga and anime, who look out from a plethora of flowers. The thin elongated nude girl who vertically intersects the center of the canvas wears a vase containing plum blossoms on top of her head and to the side floats a small pink octopus and a Japanese umbrella. Both the flowers and the octopus allude to shunga, or pictures of spring, a noted style of ukiyo-e prints alluding to sexuality. The umbrella with tentacles emerging from it becomes a kind of futuristic life form, resembling a jellyfish, while the girl on the upper right, wearing a traditional kimono, appears to have rabbit ears. The top of the work, with its red streaked sky and darker border is also reminiscent of ukiyo-e prints, and scattered throughout the image are bits evoking the landscape or motifs of traditional Japan.
The overall effect of these floating figures and the world they inhabit is fantasy, and the artist has described her desire to be released from the gravity of social expectations and adult constraints. Her androgynous figures reflect a kind of suspension from the demands of adulthood, inhabiting a complex world that is more compelling than reality. As the art critic Akiko Miki has written, "Takano suggests that it is a vision that surpasses the reason of the real world."
Oil on canvas - KaiKai Kiki Co., Tokyo, Japan