Murakami is a geek in his own words; influenced by Japanese animation and American Sci-fi, in particular, Star Wars, manga, anime and a nod to the Edo period and painter Jyakucyu Ito creating the term ‘Super Flat”.
1962 was a great year for art: several artists were born that year, including Murakami, who was born in Tokyo, Japan on the 1st February. He works in fine art but also in commercial art, fashion and merchandise and, of course, animation.
High and Low Art
Known for trying to blur the lines between what he calls high and low art. High art in Murakami’s opinion being animation, and low art being anything else; but particularly manga, anime and a subculture otaku which refers to people with a preoccupation with anything manga.
Attending the Tokyo University of the Arts to train in drafting skills in order to become an animator, Murakami changes tact and majors in Nihonga. Nihonga is a Japanese painting technique that is closely based on traditions in the Meiji period of Imperial Japan and is completely different from western art in this period – and that is the point.
Going on to earn a PhD in Nihonga, the saturation of the traditions lead to dissatisfaction with contemporary art in Japan and the “deep appropriation of Western trends”. A statement that Murakami may go on to regret.
Satire follows in 1998 with his nod to teenage angst ‘My Lonesome Cowboy’ and, four years later ‘Hiropon’, while Hiropon a sexualised image of a female manga character with large lactating breasts, it is noted as Murakami’s most expensive piece today. One would hope it’s not the piece he is most proud of.
Enter Mr DOB: Mr DOB is a self-portrait, a logo, an iconography of a Murakami character, created in 1993 that continues to appear throughout his work from then on. Not at all well received in Japan, Murakami went to New York in 1994 and received a fellowship from the Asian Cultural Council to attend MoMA PS1 international studio program and became immersed in a western pop-culture influenced by contemporary artists such as Anselm Kiefer and, notably, Jeff Koons.
It’s Jeff Koons that Murakami says contributes the most to his style at that time. Because of frustrations with the lack of a sustainable art market in Japan for post-war pieces, Murakami develops a plan and that plan includes re-creating a Japanese culture and importing it into Japan; and in that way creating a new phenomenon that is both old world and new.
Superflat The Theory
By now Hiropon Factory and Kaikai Kiki—Murakami’s companies—have become one entity, set up to provide this phenomenon to the world anime-style characters in bright colours made up in flat but glossy materials and highlighted in the 2000 collection ‘Cosmos Ball’. In the same year, Murakami published his theory on ‘Superflat’, and it’s this theory that provides context for his exhibitions ‘Coloriage’ 2002, ‘little boy’ 2005 and his commercial enterprise.
The similarities between Andy Warhol and Murakami are difficult to miss. Living and working in a ‘factory’ with many assisting artists is Warholesque, but one gets the impression Murakami has the whole commercial aspect down pat and is taking no chances.
Producing commercial art at a rate of knots; keyrings, plastic figures to paintings and sculpture and everything in between means his bank balance is healthy – and nothing wrong with that. Until you are at a point where you tell people your art is about the backlash to Capitalism.
Consumerism a Statement
There must have been something in the water in 1962 because Murakami is not the first artist to talk about the evils of capitalism, commercialisation and consumerism and be an advocate of the three c’s via his prolific output and subsequent healthy bank balance. An artist doesn’t have to be poor to be genuine or talented, just consistent.
The earthquake in Japan 2011 changed his thinking, and Murakami moved away from the commercial-style so loved in the west, to focus on healing Japan and introducing the ‘arhat’ a number of monks who heal according to Buddhist theology. Murakami chooses 16 to start with and paints them on a large scale with detail: going on to reproduce several studies including 69 arhats and then 500 arhats.
Employing over 100 people to make such massive paintings, Murakami’s part in this is a drawing or sequence of drawings given to a student who computerises the design and goes on to enhance it. This is then turned into a silkscreen print and the process is repeated. It would not be possible to do this on such scale and detail if Murakami were to try to do this on his own.
2002 sees a collaboration between Marc Jacobs and Louis Vuitton, then Issey Miyake with a menswear collection and in 2007 providing the artwork for the cover of Kanye West’s album Graduation, going on to direct an animated video for the same album. Doing the same for West in 2018 for the artwork for the cover of Kids See Ghosts.
This is by no means the end to the collaborations; leaving not a lot of time for art. In April 2020 the clothing brand Supreme released a Box Logo Tee featuring his artwork and all proceeds have gone to HELP USA, to help youth and their families who face homelessness and poverty because of COVID-19.
Murakami redeems himself by becoming a philanthropist and helping art and artists, and this is no more than it should be. Not that he cares, but he is forgiven for giving the world Hiropon and Miss ko2. They may have been lucrative but they are the epitome of high and low art. But not in a good way.