Takashi Murakami in Los Angeles

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Tan Tan Bo Puking — a.k.a. Gero Tan, Murakami, 2002 — Courtesy: Galerie Emmanuel Perrotin

On a swing through L.A. two weeks ago I caught up with “© Murakami”, the retrospective at the Geffen Contemporary outpost of the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art. It was more interesting than I would have predicted. There’s a lot to say here, so I’m going to break this post into a few parts over several days.

I had seen a fair amount of Murakami’s work before, both in New York and in Japan, where he’s an artist/pop star of a kind we haven’t had in the U.S. since Warhol died. In Tokyo a few years ago I was staying in a hotel at the Roppongi Hills development, a massive office/retail complex that Murakami had been hired to “brand”. The place was crawling with giant cartoon characters he had created for it. The shuttle buses had Murakami cartoons all over them. Meanwhile the Mori Art Museum, on an upper floor of the Roppongi office tower, had a show about Louis Vuitton, the luxury goods company that Murakami does all those accessories for. It made the Giorgio Armani show at the Guggenheim a few years ago look like the last word in ethically scrupulous museum practice. Yeah, yeah, I know, Japanese culture doesn’t recognize any distinction between high art and commercial product. The language didn’t even have a term for high art until the 1860s. Are we sure that’s a good thing?

Second generation Pop generally bores me, but the Geffen show, which was organized by Paul Schimmel, was the first that really let me get a handle on Murakami, who’s better than I thought, but also a shrewd operator. Anybody who follows art knows by now that he draws ideas and forms from the Japanese nerd/geek culture otaku and its two main cartoon art forms, manga comics and anime films. He also trawls through the adolescent girl culture called kawaii — the cutie pie universe where Hello Kitty and Astro Boy ride off into the sunset on My Little Pony. So you could say he resembles the early Roy Lichtenstein in that he takes inspiration from comic books, though Murakami closes the loop by creating his own comic and cartoon characters, like Kaikai and Kiki, and sending them back into the marketplace. He’s made animated films and a music video for Kanye West. He even sells his characters as little plastic figures from vending machines.

Kaikai Kiki News, Murakami, 2002 — Courtesy: Galerie Emmanuel Perrotin

Murakami also took a page from Warhol’s Factory by organizing his studio into a corporation with headquarters in Japan and Brooklyn and workers who clock in. (And just like Japanese construction workers do group calisthenics in the morning.) Except for the calisthenics, how this is so different from Damien Hirst’s sizeable payroll I can’t say.

But Murakami understands his pop culture models through a plausible theoretical framework of his own devising that he calls Superflat. It connects the flatness of comics and digital imaging and cheap Japanese animation with the similar flatness of many kinds of traditional Japanese painting. (Murakami did his doctoral dissertation on nihonga, a 19th century hybrid of Japanese and Western painting.)

For him Superflat also has a psychological dimension. Murakami sees all that cheap cartoony culture as the place — maybe the only place — where Japanese rage and anxiety about Japan’s humiliation at the end of World War II and afterwards found expression in Japanese culture, in however codified a way. He sees postwar Japan as infantilized by the American occupation, reduced to a childlike dependency culture that, no surprise, could only express its deepest fears in juvenile formats. As T.S. Eliot said: “I will show you fear in a handful of kitsch.” Or something like that.

This is an idea related in some ways to the insight Susan Sontag had as early as the mid-1960s, when she wrote “The Imagination of Disaster”, her essay about the subterranean meanings of sci-fi catastrophe movies like Godzilla, Mothra and The Mysterians. But Murkami closes the loop again by feeding that recognition back into his own art. His own work, or at least some of it, is a way of drawing out those anxious subcurrents in cheesy pop culture, bringing the anxieties and resentments more plainly into the image. In that respect he connects to a tradition of Japanese grievance towards the West that dates back to Commodore Perry, one that nourished both Japanese fascism before World War II and the ultra militant student leftism afterwards. (To say nothing of Yukio Mishima.)

So what did I learn at the Geffen show? Let’s get to that tomorrow.