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Visual Arts

(Super)flat Pop

Matt Broach

Despite sharing a preoccupation with pop culture and commercialism, Takashi Murakami is no Andy Warhol.

In 1999, when the Brooklyn Museum launched the US version of the “Sensation” show, an exhibition of contemporary British artists, the public outcry was deafening. Criticism of the show, particularly of the Chris Ofili piece The Holy Virgin Mary, which featured the Madonna decorated with a piece of elephant dung, was so intense that public money was completely withdrawn from the museum. A court order eventually restored the funding but couldn’t quell the public outrage, and Ofili’s piece was eventually vandalized.

It is a fitting representation of the state of art world that Takashi Murakami’s decision to put a Louis Vuitton shop in the middle of his retrospective, which spent this past summer at the Brooklyn Museum, failed to spark a similar furor. The shop sold the latest versions of the Murakami/Vuitton collection, including handbags patterned with the LV monogram and Murakami’s cartoon jellyfish eyes. Sure, a few people moaned about the art world’s commercialization, but that complaint seems ridiculous in a time when every major museum exhibition culminates with its own mini-giftshop. Rather than leaving the visitor pondering the meaning of the artwork, the exhibition ends by asking, "Did you enjoy our show about Giacometti? Buy the T-Shirt!"

Photo (partial) from Takashi Murakami's exhibit at the

Brooklyn Museum from Super Touch

So while the Vuitton shop is nothing new, Murakami’s retrospective is a clear indication of what results from this close marriage between art and consumerism: a castrated art -- one completely devoid of critical content. Murakami’s work is part of a growing movement of Japanese pop art, with Murakami frequently referred to as Japan’s Andy Warhol. Superficially, the two artists seem to have a lot in common: Both use imagery appropriated from popular culture, both employ repetition of imagery as a common pictorial motif. Perhaps most important, neither artist actually executes their own artworks, instead employing a “factory” of assistants to manufacture their paintings and prints, with the artist only touching the finished work to sign it.

Yet, to play up this comparison is to undervalue an important distinction between the two: Warhol, at least in his early work, criticized mass imagery even as he appropriated it. Murakami’s work lacks even a whiff of subversiveness; it remains, at its core, a celebration of banality.

Close analysis of Murakami’s work offers hints at the chasm that separates the two artists. Though both artists trade in repetition, Warhol’s repetitions were always deliberately imperfect. Even when he worked using mechanical means -- for instance, with silkscreening -- the images were intentionally misregistered. In his classic Marilyn Monroe works, the colored acrylic underpainting never perfectly lines up with black, silk-screened overlay. The effect is somewhat jarring; Warhol’s irregularities grate against the stylized images of perfection that the advertising and mass media typically trade in.

But to walk into the room lined with Murakami’s trademark smiling, cartoon flowers is to be greeted with repetition for the sake of catharsis rather than discomfort. Digitally-printed wallpaper lines the room, each vertical strip identical to the next. The acrylic paintings of the same smiling flowers, although hand-painted, blend seamlessly with the digital exactness below. At more than two feet away, any evidence of an individual, human hand at work completely disappears. Surrounded floor to ceiling with flowers, the viewer is smiled into submission.

Unlike Warhol, Murakami uses color to please rather than unsettle us. Although always high-key, Murakami’s paintings are usually a mix of primary colors, flesh tones, and the occasional well-matched gray -- exactly the set of colors one might expect to find in a group of Photoshop color swatches. Warhol’s color often looked a little sickly. His Gold Marilyn Monroe at MoMA proves illustrative; the shock of yellow hair clashes strongly with the gold background. These disjointed relationships between figure and ground are relatively common in his paintings. Warhol’s work, though it draws its imagery directly from advertising (think Brillo boxes, Campbell’s soup cans), contains little of the language of advertising itself -- such intentional ugliness would be an anathema in marketing material. Murakami’s work, with its sharp lines and well-matched colors, is pure Madison Avenue. Little wonder, then, that he chose to collaborate with Louis Vuitton.

Of course, the fact that Murakami’s work is so similar to advertising makes it intensely seductive. It is next to impossible for a viewer not to be drawn into his larger pieces, such as Tan Tan Bo Puking, a painting more than 10 feet high and 20 feet wide. Along with the usual intense coloration and dynamic composition, the painting displays radical shifts in scale: from the mountainous main figure in the center, rearing up almost the full height of the painting, to the hidden figures of recurring Murakami characters kaikai and kiki, each only a couple inches tall. One can find this same visual lushness and hidden characteristics throughout advertising. The Absolut Miles vodka ad is a perfect example, which takes its richness from the cover of Davis’ Bitches Brew while disguising the trademark bottle shape in a tiny corner, thereby rewarding dedicated viewers.

Photo (partial) from Takashi Murakami's exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum from Super Touch

With such aesthetic force, Murakami’s paintings could lend clout to otherwise controversial ideas. Instead, the content of work is either absurdly juvenile (such as in My Lonesome Cowboy, a sculpture of an anime-inspired figure wielding a lasso of semen) or abstracted to the point of meaninglessness (such as his Homage to Francis Bacon, a swirling mess of Day-Glo mess that bears little resemblance, visually or thematically, to the late British painter’s work).

The closest Murakami’s imagery comes to anything other than saccharine eye-candy is in his Time Bokan series, each depicting a stylized mushroom cloud with a skull-like face. The image comes from a Japanese cartoon of the same name, in which every episode ends with the defeat of the villains by a huge bomb exploding over their heads. Murakami’s writings are filled with references to the effects of the atomic bomb on the Japanese character, as in this excerpt from a catalog essay, “Little Boy: The Art of Japan’s Exploding Subculture:”

We feel an abiding sense of righteous indignation at the use of atomic bombs to bring the Pacific War to a close. We level cheap shots at the Japanese government, which placed Japan in that final scenario and then concealed the truth about the bombs' effects. We feel complex emotions towards the Americans who thrust the terror of nuclear annihilation upon Japan. Added to this is our own cowardly rage for accepting media control as a necessary evil. All of this simmered in the Japanese consciousness as dogma without direction. When these contexts emerged, the message reached its audience in the guise of children’s programming.

Murakami’s realization that real dialogue about Japan’s historical scars takes place only through anime and other Japanese subcultures is enlightening, but the way in which he appropriates those images isn’t. Rather than revealing how Japanese reticence is reducing much of its culture to infantilism -- as he does over and over again in his writings -- Murakami plays up the juvenility of the imagery of his paintings: further abstracting the cloud from the Time Bokan series and adding a circle of his smiling, brightly colored flowers for eyes. Any potency of the image is anesthetized by its prevailing cuteness.

Warhol, by contrast, didn’t shy away from harsh imagery. In fact, perhaps the most subversive aspect of his work was his decision to treat disturbing images, such as pictures of car crashes or electric chairs lifted from newspaper photographs, in exactly the same manner as those of brand icons and pop stars. The juxtaposition alone is provoking: Do we revel equally in celebrity and destruction? Does mass media glorify tragedy and violence? Such questions may seem passé now, in an era in which pictures of Abu Ghraib and Brangelina’s babies vie for cultural space, but they raise serious issues about the passivity with which we accept media imagery.

Photo (partial) from Takashi Murakami's exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum from Super Touch

Given the vast increase in media saturation over the past decade, especially with the advent of the internet, one would expect artists to take an even deeper critical engagement with media images. Unfortunately, as the Murakami retrospective clearly demonstrates, the opposite has occurred -- and we can see this transformation happen over the course of Warhol’s career. By the 1970s, most of Warhol’s painting and printmaking output was confined to society portraits, sometimes privately commissioned for large sums of money. His technique remained the same, printing silkscreen over an acrylic background, albeit this time the silkscreened photos were his: Polaroids he took of his sitters. The same intentional slips are there, as critic Robert Hughes mentions: “Only rarely is there even the least formal relationship between the image and its background.” Yet what had early on been a critical gesture became, through incessant repetition, a formula.

How was such a keen social commentator reduced to a second-rate social portraitist? The answer comes with the birth of what critic Dave Hickey calls the Big, Beautiful Art Market. When Warhol began working in the 1960s, the art market as we know it today didn’t exist. Art was, of course, never insulated from money -- art has been a status symbol since long before Louis XIV built Versailles. What was new in the late ‘60s was the transformation of art into a commodity, a development that reached its apotheosis in the '80s. The history of this transition is complicated -- Robert Hughes's fantastic 1984 essay “Art and Money” is a good place to start -- but it clearly had a blinding effect on artists. Like stocks or futures contracts, art became an investment, and Andy Warhol became a blue-chip artist.

Though on some level a social critic, Warhol was also a tireless social climber. He eventually traded the grunge of his Factory, filled with transvestites, druggies, and other sects of '60s outsiders, for the wealth- and cocaine-fueled glitz of Studio 54. When the art market began gobbling up Warhols faster than he could produce them, he had reason to churn out one celebutante portrait after another. The combination of money and celebrity transformed Warhol the artist into Warhol the brand.

The Warhol brand, however, never had any intention of reaching beyond a certain class of monied elite. Nothing Warhol made in his later years, long after he gave up commercial work to be a fine artist, was meant as mass culture. Murakami, by contrast, operates comfortably in two markets simultaneously. His work travels the usual gallery-festival-auction circuit of the art market, which has treated him quite well: an edition of My Lonesome Cowboy sold for $15.2 million at Sotheby’s last May. But he also designs and produces a wide range of consumer goods. His studio, Kaikai Kiki, has space in both Tokyo and Queens, New York, where it churns out not only his paintings, prints, and sculptures, but also stationery, trading cards, toy figures, and animated films. He designed cover art and directed a video for Kanye Wests Graduation.

Part of Murakami's refusal to acknowledge the high-low divide in art can be traced to his Japanese heritage. The elitism regarding fine art is peculiarly Western. Yet the contention that Murakami has eroded the cultural divide is ludicrous: Japanese schoolgirls aren’t placing bids on his paintings at Sotheby’s, and major art collectors aren’t rushing to buying Kaikai Kiki-produced ballpoint pens. Murakami straddles the art market and the consumer-retail market, but he does not reconcile them. Instead, his practices reinforce their separation. Once could even argue that he has widened the gulf, with his commercial celebrity driving up the already-exorbitant prices of his commodity-luxury art.

Photo of Takashi Murakami from his website

Murakami is unlikely to unleash critical barbs at an industry that has made him a millionaire. His work veers towards a willful shallowness, as the name of his art movement, Superflat, indicates. In fact, Murakami recollects coming up with the name while listening to a sales pitch made by two Los Angeles gallery owners -- a fitting origin to an art movement that is so thoroughly commercial. Popular art need not be banal, but Murakami seems to insist otherwise.

In 1977 and 1978, long after Warhol seemingly abandoned any semblance of radicalism, he made a series of work known as the Oxidation Paintings. Each piece in the series was made by covering a canvas with copper-based paint, after which Warhol or an assistant peed on the canvas. Where the urine splattered across the surface, the paint would eventually discolor -- hence the series' title. Most critics have called these pieces parodies of Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings, but it seems equally plausible to read them as a subtle jeer at the emptiness of the art market. One can imagine Warhol thinking, If they’re willing to buy whatever garbage I produce, I’m more than willing to sell them my piss.

It’s difficult to imagine Murakami making a similarly reactionary gesture. He seems unintentionally self-referential when he writes in the “Little Boy” catalog essay, “the day is coming in when the world will sneer at its own inconstancy, its vacuity, with derision.” One can only hope. We’re all still waiting.

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