Imitation Warhol

My favorite is DOB the inflatable. Here, filled with helium and suspended from the ceiling, is GuruGuru (1998). An enormous, looming head with a gaping mouth and many eyes peers down at you, like a blow-up Wizard of Oz. It's Cat in the Hat meets Moby Dick by way of the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade. I saw a little poodle go nuts under this wild thing.

Lately, however, DOB has taken far less interesting turns, mutating into a toothy mushroom sculpture, and a series of smiling flower paintings. Here Murakami is turning out product. He's thinking too much about what "a Murakami" should look like. He's trying to grow, when it feels like he really wants to hold on to his position.

Murakami says he wants to create a "new pop art," and he wants to make it out of Japanese culture, which, as we have seen, is made out of other cultures. But this is a risky strategy. First, this bricolage (as the literary critics call it), this piecing-together-from-pieces, is the air we breathe, the order of the day, and it will be for the foreseeable future. Look at any magazine or the way kids dress; styles are hyper-collapsing into one another.

Takashi Murakami's 'My Lonesome Cowboy'
courtesy of the Marianne Boeskey Gallery
Takashi Murakami's 'My Lonesome Cowboy'

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Takashi Murakami
'The meaning of the nonsense of meaning'
Center for Curatorial Studies, Bard College
Through September 12

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Second, Murakami's main interest—the realm of Manga (the radically distorted creatures that populate Japanese comic books, toys, and computer games) and Anime (the cartoons and animated films)—is by now well traveled. Japanimation almost seems cardboardy and slightly boring. Plus, even at his most popular DOB is no Homer Simpson. So let's not get carried away.

But there's something else haunting Murakami. And it dogs a lot of artists these days. His supporters maintain he is "the Japanese equivalent of Andy Warhol." And Murakami makes a lot of pretentious references to Warhol. One of his sculptures, of a boy ejaculating a lariat of semen, is titled My Lonesome Cowboy; now he's making flower paintings, and calls his studio "The Hiropon Factory." May I remind you that Warhol's Factory was most of all an ark, a state of mind, a spacecraft of consciousness, emitting strange holy vibrations, godly sensations, and inspiration. Murakami's studio is a business.

You should look at Murakami's art shamelessly, celebrate its seductiveness and clarity, and even adore it. But also hope that he stops trying so hard to make art. In spite of his nod to popular culture, Murakami has fallen far behind it. Too satisfied with too little, his fatal attraction to the art world keeps him returning to the surface. He's forgotten that surface is a thousand miles deep.

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