In his New York City studio, Takashi Murakami discusses his three-decades-long practice in which he blends traditional and modern art techniques to create enormous paintings with a visual power unmatched in contemporary art.
Murakami talks about his position as an outsider in Western contemporary art world and his interest in breaking down the boundaries between art and popular culture through collaborations with Kanye West, Louis Vuitton, and Complex. Michael Darling, James W. Alsdorf Chief Curator, is also featured in the video and discusses Murakami's history and accomplishments. They each delve into the origins of Murakami's iconic Mr. DOB, as well as his influences, including Star Wars, natural disasters, and fashion branding.
Murakami: Honestly, I didn't know about how different fine art and the subculture [are]. What is the borderline?
My reality is, this borderline is almost melting.
Darling: Murakami loves to confound expectations. I think he loves especially to play with the preciousness of the contemporary art world.
Murakami: I am not thinking about this as a risk, because this is my advantage. That's why I can make many collaborations, like with Kanye West.
Darling: Murakami was introduced to the giants of Western contemporary art in the late 1980s. I was learning the Western contemporary art system, and I came to New York.
Murakami: [It was] very difficult [for me] to find out my standing position in [the] New York art world. So I [was] using Orientalism. Using the manga image. I [was] not satisfied [with] this situation. That's why I crossed the borderline. This is also [how] I can make my identity—the Japanese artist identity.
What [was] a main theme [in] the contemporary art scene–[was] how [to] break through the old school. And one thing [was] how [to] battle with capitalism. Because Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst [were] doing this battle. That's why I followed [them].
Darling: Around 2007, 2008, Murakami was enjoying a lot of success.
Murakami: Before the big earthquake, It looks like I completely forgot I came from Japan.
Darling: And all of that created a bit of a turning point for him in a way, and almost even a crisis of creativity.
Murakami: I woke up when I [saw] the Japanese–the earthquake’s reality.
Darling: And then you see him introduce these figures called arhats, which are Buddhist monk figures that would have walked around the countryside bringing healing and things to people.
Originally arhat [was] 16 [people]. Sixteen arhats is very important because these 16 people are the students of Buddha.
So Japanese people use it for this story. If we can create many number [of] the arhats, each [taking] care of some ill or some problem. That's why Japanese people created. . . over 400 [arhats].
Darling: So he started making these paintings of arhats and collections of arhats. There’s a painting of 69 arhats and a painting of 100 arhats. And then there’s also a 300-foot-long painting called The 500 Arhats, which kicked it all off.
Murakami: The 500 Arhats painting is huge. And [it was a] very short time to make everything. And I employ over 100 people. It looks like a movie production.
I am geek for the Japanese animation stuff and also the American sci-fi stuff. For example, in Star Wars, the first sequence is completely 3D, right? But Japanese sci-fi stuff is kind of that—moving–completely differently. The main visual philosophy came very naturally to making flatness, but, at the same time having some dimension.
Darling: "Superflat" is a term that Murakami himself coined.
Murakami: This theory came from the Edo period painter, Jakūchu Itō. He made the chicken painting. He made the dogs painting. So that is a completely flat composition. A lot of chickens. A lot of dogs. The painter is organizing [the composition] for the eyeball moving.
Darling: But he also sees this theory much more broadly. And for him it talks a lot about a Japanese culture where there’s no real distinction between high art and low art. So it’s a way of leveling all of those distinctions that we get caught up on in the West and sort of flattens them out.
Murakami: For example, who is [at the] highest level in Japanese culture scene? It’s the comic writer [who] is highest.
When I created Mr. DOB, [it] was the kind of the icon. So [it] came from the Japanese, very famous character Doraemon, and Sonic the Hedgehog. But finally it looks like Walt Disney’s Mickey Mouse. But right now [it] looks like my self-portrait, so [it] kind of changed. That is 20 years working together [laughs].
Darling: Sometimes he’s playful and sweet. Sometimes he’s more menacing. Sometimes he’s being affected by all these external forces. Or is even able to maybe create certain moods and ideas that reflect his own personal and artistic struggles, and channel them into Mr. DOB.
Murakami: Everything came from the Star Wars stuff. [George] Lucas released for the “making of” video. And then I was learning–oh my god—this is a process. Okay, director is making for the scenario, the storyboard, and then shooting a film, and editing. This is a, you know, process. And maybe in a painting it’s much easier to [borrow] it from this system.
Darling: One of the things that makes Murakami’s work so unique is the scale. I mean, there are very few painters working today that can get anywhere close to the scale of the works that he’s making. And when you start looking even more closely at them, there’s this incredible detail to them. A single person working in their studio would never be able to accomplish this unless they were just planning on making, one or two paintings over a whole lifetime.
Murakami: I make the small drawing, and the scanning, and I give [it to] my assistant, assistant make the computerization, and the blow-up, and the burning, and the silk screen, [I’m] checking, and “I don't like that.” I'm again, you know, making the drawing, giving. . . It looks like a cycle.
Then you know finished up the painting, “Oh, this is great.” Because this painting is emptiness. So what is the greatest art piece? [It] is, I thought, emptiness.
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- Short A brightly colored landscape with a giant multi-colored humunculous sitting on top of a hill, its open mouth revealing jagged teeth, seeping fluids while pustules explode from other parts of its ovoid head.
- Long A bulbous cartoon creature fills the saturated blue background of this wide rectangular painting full of bright, ecstatic colors. It is surrounded by dozens of smaller cartoon figures. Topped by two circular, multicolored ears, the figure has large, drooping eyes and a wide mouth—nearly as wide as its head—that opens in a menacing grin, revealing jagged rows of sharp black teeth. Covered with blotches of white and muted greens, oranges, pinks, and reds, its body blends in with a similarly colored hill below it. Two small feet with overgrown nails and a tiny pair of testicles and penis, however, differentiate the two forms. A thick, multicolored goo oozes from the corners of the creature’s mouth, and the globs of orange, brown, red, cream, and blue coalesce on the land below. With long white arms, one of which holds a staff topped by colorful skulls, the looming figure appears to preside over small creatures taking part in grotesque, brightly colored scenes, including a few critters on the far left, who purge variegated sludge; another who chomps down on a multicolored phallus out of which an even smaller figure emerges; and one on the right with squinting, watering eyes who opens its teeth-filled mouth to ingest a grub-like form with protruding spikes. The painting evokes a jubilant sense of chaos. The bottom edge of the canvas is lined with low rolling hills sparsely dotted with various two-dimensional daisies sporting big red smiles. A few clusters of fluffy white clouds in the background come in contact with two thick green lines that are visible between the hills, giving the impression of a horizon line. Though the relative size of the hills and the horizon line would suggest a great distance between them, the landscape appears foreshortened.