A copyright sign, the small letter "c" contained within a circle, replaces the first name of artist Takashi Murakami for the retrospective organized by Paul Schimmel, chief curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, Oct. 29, 2007-Feb. 11, 2008. That tiny icon stands as the signifier for the massive gathering of paintings, sculptures, videos and knickknacks arranged in the Geffen Contemporary warehouse in the neighborhood of Little Tokyo.
Copyright usually signifies that the item in question is the property of a creator, and that reproduction is forbidden without the creator’s permission. In the case of Murakami, the copyright mark also signals that the artist has extended his distinctive esthetic back out into the popular culture that was its original source. The characters featured in his earliest paintings and sculptures from the 1990s -- D.O.B., Miss Ko and others -- are famously derived from Japan’s lively pop culture. Murakami’s own creations were later manufactured by the artist as miniature figurines and packaged with chewing gum and sold at convenience stores. It is possible to collect all the toys and form your own Murakami Museum, a version of which is included in the show.
Other Murakami characters show up in a range of affordable and amusing novelties distributed by his own company, Kaikai Kiki Co., and an entire museum gallery is installed with Kaikai Kiki key chains, t-shirts, stickers and so forth. In fact, "Kaikai" and "Kiki" are cartoonish characters themselves, one angelic and the other devilish, and appear in his paintings and sculptures.
The words "Kaikai" and "Kiki" roughly translate as "good" and "evil," which suggests a self-conscious duality in Murakami’s commercial enterprise. It is hard to say whether the force of Kaikai or Kiki drove the decision to erect an actual, working Louis Vuitton boutique on the MOCA mezzanine, but the choice has proven to be provocative. A kind of commercial readymade, the white lacquer cube is lined with brightly lit shelves containing rows of Louis Vuitton merchandise, including a new brown-and-tan canvas "Neverfull" bag in three sizes. Priced at $875 to $965, the tote has become the "It" bag of the moment, and is already available on eBay for a 50 percent premium.
The boutique is not a museum store. It is a Murakami store and, according to sales staff dressed in white Louis Vuitton suit, the merchandise within cannot be purchased at an ordinary Louis Vuitton boutique. This "limited edition" Murakami Neverfull bag, according to a bright pink tag inside, is available in the museum alone. Profits are split between the artist and Louis Vuitton, and MOCA gets nothing -- though Vuitton sponsored the show’s gala opening, which by all accounts was a deluxe affair.
Many visitors to the museum see "© Murakami" as evidence of the complete capitulation of art to the realm of commerce. Murakami is more clever than that. His new Neverfull tote comes with its own dose of irony, since the artist has rendered the luxury firm’s trademark LV initials on the side of the bag in a goofy camouflage of hot pink and lime green, and appended smiling chrysanthemums and cartoon hands to the letters. With their garish colors and white Mickey Mouse hands, the bags are in questionable taste, quite unrefined, especially by the standards of tradition. I bought one immediately.
Esthetic taste is a consistent theme in Murakami’s work, a theme that is specifically linked to Japanese history and culture. Anyone visiting Tokyo today can scarcely help but notice the contemporary zeitgeist of kawai, the Japanese word for "cute" that describes saccharine and contrived girlish clothing and accessories. Typically interpreted as a sign of social conformity -- things "cute" are by definition non-confrontational -- the subculture also has a violent and sexually explicit underside. In his work, Murakami conflates the Japanese obsession with status with the consumption of kitsch. This inherent conflict provides the tension that fuels Murakami’s investigation of questions of high and low, elite and popular.
Trained for years in the traditions of Nihonga, a historic form of Japanese painting perceived as the epitome of good taste, in the early ‘90s Murakami broke free to pursue his own style of art influenced by manga and anime, Japanese comic books and animated films, and to explore issues of what constitutes taste. Soon, he had come up with enduring characters like D.O.B., the mouse with many eyes and pointed teeth, rendered on paintings and inflatable balloon sculptures.
After seeing Jeff Koons’ sculpture of Michael Jackson in New York, Murakami began making larger-than-life sculptures like Hiropon, the naked, long-legged doll spewing milk from engorged breasts, and My Lonesome Cowboy, a blond youth with an erect penis ejaculating a lasso-like curve of semen. They are exhibited at MOCA, along with huge paintings of pastel monochrome and swirls of pale liquids titled Milk and Cream.
The artist then produced adorable and bizarre sculptures and paintings of smiling chrysanthemums or mushrooms covered in jelly-fish eyes. In 2001, Murakami organized an exhibition called "Superflat," also shown at MOCA, exploring the kind of two-dimensionality that is practiced in traditional Japanese art and the flat quality of comic book and animation art. Not only did the show bring attention to other contemporary Japanese artists, but it also raised Murakami’s own profile. He was approached by Marc Jacobs, creative director of Louis Vuitton, and the first Murakami-designed bags were issued in 2003.
Now there is a so-called "Murakami universe" of prestige products made for LV, popular products made by Kaikai Kiki and unique products made for art collectors. The guild of craftsmen and artists who work for Murakami -- scores of artists and assistants in studios in New York and Tokyo -- have helped accelerate the volume of such production, though Murakami himself oversees each piece.
This full-body immersion into the capitalist enterprise may have brought about some mid-career soul-searching. The most interesting works of the last few years address plunge deep into Japanese history, and take up notions of spiritual quest, including an 18-foot tall platinum-plated sculpture of the artist as an alarming and toothy Buddha.
The vast and ravishing paintings of Boddhisatva on glimmering backgrounds of silver or gold are reminiscent of his early, more traditionalist training. One is titled That I may time transcend, that a universe my heart may unfold. . . . They are, in short, in excellent taste. Could it be a coincidence that they are hung in the spacious gallery leading direction to the sanctuary of the LV boutique?
"© Murakami," Oct. 28, 2007-Feb. 11, 2008, at the Geffen Contemporary at MOCA, 250 South Grand Avenue, Los Angeles, Ca. 90012.
HUNTER DROHOJOWSKA-PHILP is author of Full Bloom: The Art and Life of Georgia O’Keeffe, published by W.W. Norton.