The Wonderful World of Murakami

Modern artist and master merchandiser, Takashi Murakami designs sculptures that soar and handbags that sell. A portrait of the man who mixes naughty and nice, cartoonish and classical, hype and hope.

At what point does an artist officially make the leap from cult favorite to art-world phenomenon? Is it when
• He's asked to exhibit his sculptures (including a pair of multieyed 33-foot helium balloons and a zany 30-foot-long fiberglass blob) in New York City's staid Rockefeller Center?
• One of his pieces, an unsettling Barbielike statue called Miss Ko2, sells at Christie's for $567,500—almost double the estimated price?
• His design collaboration with Louis Vuitton reportedly earns the company $300 million?

It's the rare artist who can realize any of these scenarios in a lifetime, but in 2003, the Japanese painter and sculptor Takashi Murakami achieved all of the above and more. For the past decade, he has been the art world's designated enfant terrible, vexing and delighting critics in equal measure. But recently, the ponytailed 42-year-old has seen his star go global and is on his way to enjoying the widespread celebrity that no artist since Andy Warhol has been able to attain.

Every artiste du jour who mixes fun with formalism is inevitably described as the next Warhol, but in Murakami's case the comparison is particularly apt. Like Warhol's work, Murakami's is an irresistible mix of high-art rigor and exuberant mass commercialism. "Understanding Murakami's concepts, his mix of contemporary imagery and pop sensibility with classical allusions, has been a long process for collectors," says Marianne Boesky, the eponymous owner of a New York City gallery that has represented Murakami since 1997. "But his work has always had a certain level of accessibility, and now it's gone mainstream." In recent years his vibrant, crisply rendered paintings and sculptures had already begun to fetch top prices. In May, his Flower Ball (3-D) canvas sold at Sotheby's contemporary-art auction for $624,000, more than twice its $250,000 low estimate. It was his 2003 collaboration with Louis Vuitton, though, that turned the Tokyo native into one of the rare few whose work is as coveted by the readers of Art + Auction as it is by those of In Style.

Before Murakami became the darling of the fashion world, he was a promising young Japanese artist with a doctorate in painting and a vision that seemed, at the time, radical. His art, he decided, would combine the lovely exactitude of traditional Japanese painting and printmaking techniques with the irreverent mania of Japanese cartoons—all the while drawing cheeky, offhanded references to every important artistic genre of the 20th century, from Abstract Expressionism to Pop.

By the mid-nineties, he had created many of the iconic figures and patterns that still populate his landscapes: grinning, glazed-eyed floating panda bears, long-lashed Technicolor jellyfish eyeballs, and the leering Mickey Mouse-esque Mr. Dob, who, like Murakami's other creatures, is an engaging, slightly discomfiting combination of cute and sinister. For a 1999 show at Boesky, Murakami transformed the gallery into a trippy amusement park with the likes of Hiropon, a six-foot fiberglass sculpture of an unsettlingly cute young girl skipping over an arc of milk she's squeezing from her impossibly large breasts. At the gallery two years later, Murakami showed Contact, a multipanel silver screen decorated with vines and daisies that was part Disney, part Hokusai, and entirely arresting. His work has provoked strong reactions—not all of them positive. New York Times critic Roberta Smith marveled at his sculptures, observing in a review that "these works give Japanese cuteness a rude jolt." Guardian art critic Adrian Searle was less impressed. "This is a nasty kind of infantilism, filled with fetishistic details," he wrote. "There's no sign of any internal critique, just a lot of very high-class production values." Murakami was undaunted. "Young people understand what I'm doing, which is linking the indigenous fine arts culture to manga [Japanese comics] and anime [animation]," Murakami told Interview. "But the establishment treats me as if I'm just trying to be controversial. My point is more pure than that: I'm interested in exploring the confusing times in which we live."

Murakami—who, with his T-shirt and shorts and round, friendly face, looks a little like an impish cartoon character himself—isn't satisfied with merely creating a new aesthetic, he also wants to change how the public, particularly his fellow countrymen, understand and consume Japanese art. The Japanese are famous collectors but have been, puzzlingly, less than enthusiastic in their embrace of homegrown talent. "Takashi knows there isn't much of a market for contemporary art in Japan, and he is determined to change that." says Tim Blum, of Blum & Poe, a Los Angeles-based gallery that has also represented Murakami for seven years. In 2001 Murakami curated the enormously popular "Superflat" exhibition for the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. The group show featured work by established and up-and-coming Japanese artists. Many of them share Murakami's cartoony aesthetic, and some—like Aya Takano, Chiho Aoshima, and Mr., now all rising stars in their own right—began their careers assisting Murakami. Indeed, says Boesky, one of Murakami's primary interests is serving as a mentor to the next generation of artists; these days he maintains a full-time staff of 45 or so, many of them young artists and artisans. The majority live in Japan, where they work at Murakami's Kaikai Kiki factory in suburban Tokyo. The rest work out of his Brooklyn studio, assisting with installations of New York-based projects; another studio is in the works for Los Angeles. Like many peripatetic multidisciplinary artists, Murakami assigns the actual fabrication to his staff, raising the specter of the controversy that surrounded artist Mark Kostabi in the late eighties and nineties. "From start to finish, they're all his work," stresses Boesky. "He and his assistants work as a team, and he comes back and checks every piece multiple times. The assistants aren't allowed to do anything autonomously; Takashi's a great perfectionist." Days after the opening of Murakami's 2003 New York show, gallerygoers had to step around the artist's staffers, who were crouched on the ground, carefully painting the finishing touches on The World of Sphere, a massive, elaborate canvas of a bulbous, smiling panda perched against a flurry of Louis Vuitton monograms. Murakami returns the favor for his assistants on their personal projects. As he told Interview, "We all do our own work, but we also work together, often without credit. . . . We act as one another's assistants."

Of Murakami's many successes and personas, however, the one that continues to generate the most attention—and inspire the most consternation—is his gift as a marketer. Savvy merchandising deals have made Murakami the lord of an empire that produces T-shirts, key chains, soccer balls, figurines, posters, books, stuffed animals, toys, and mousepads, all branded with his unmistakable iconography, and all highly collectible. Recently he's branched out into other types of design, creating "the visual personality" for Tokyo's $2.5 billion Roppongi Hills business-and-residential complex. Such commercialization would be anathema for most artists, but Murakami makes no apologies for his marketing genius and zeal. In Japan—where only four museums can count works by Murakami in their permanent collection—his focus on branding is a matter of financial necessity. "A Japanese audience can have exposure to him through his Roppongi Hills design or a Pentax commercial," says Blum. "He's no naïf about money, but any money that is accumulated simply gets poured right back into the next project." The artist, who is single and lives in a dreary Tokyo suburb, maintains a relatively ascetic existence.

Murakami's talent for democratizing commercialism reached its apotheosis with the Louis Vuitton venture, for which he created four interpretations of the company's stolid brown-and-gold trademark monogram. For one series, Murakami scattered smiling cherry blossoms across the canvas and, for another, he transformed the company's signature print into a riot of color against simple backgrounds. The bags, some of them limited editions, proved an instant hit for Vuitton: An estimated 160,000 of them flew off store shelves in 2003. The success of the line—along with the accompanying show, which featured large color-splashed canvases bearing the monogram—propelled Murakami to stratospheric status. This year ArtReview ranked him number seven on its "Power 100" list, just below German artist Gerhard Richter (at number five) and British megacollector Charles Saatchi (number six).

Murakami shows no signs of slowing down in 2004. This past February, he curated a show in New York City for Boesky of works by some of his young female protégées, "Tokyo Girls Bravo." In May, he mounted an exhibition of new work at Blum & Poe in Los Angeles. Next up is a full-length animated feature and maybe even a Murakami museum. And after that? Well, only Murakami knows.


So You Want To Buy a Murakami?

"There is less out there than people imagine," says Marianne Boesky, the artist's New York gallerist. "Murakami's imagery is so pervasive that his output seems a lot greater than it is. But all his galleries have long waiting lists." When the paintings are available, says Boesky, they range in price from $30,000 to $300,000; sculptures begin at $30,000 as well and can reach $1.5 million. Besides the MARIANNE BOESKY GALLERY (www.marianneboeskygallery.com) in New York and BLUM & POE in Los Angeles (www.blumandpoe.com), Murakami is represented by GALERIE EMMANUEL PERROTIN in Paris (www.galerieperrotin.com) and TOMIO KOYAMA GALLERY in Tokyo (www.tomiokoyamagallery.com).

Some of Murakami's most important work can also be found on the secondary market, where his paintings and sculptures are the inevitable showstoppers in any auction (Murakami pieces have recently come up for auction at PHILLIPS, DE PURY & LUXEMBOURG, SOTHEBY'S, and CHRISTIE'S). The relative scarcity of Murakami's work—as well as the artist's current profile—guarantees that his pieces will be the subject of some fiercely competitive bidding and will fetch well over their high estimate.

Those wishing to learn more about the artist's recent work and upcoming projects can visit MURAKAMI'S CURATORIAL WEBSITE (www.kaikaikiki.co.jp).