Schjeldahl on Murakami

April 10, 2008

In his review of the (C) Murakami exhibit, Peter Schjeldahl admits at the outset why he dislikes the work on display. Murakami, like the Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang, reminds him of New Yorkers’ “new geo-spiritual fate, as provincials in a world of creative paradigms that no longer entreat our favor.” In other words, it’s not for him.


Murakami assumes viewers know the pop matter from which he carves his objects. For people under a certain age, or from the other side of the planet, the images are familiar. For Schjeldahl, they reveal a “tin eye.” He struggles to find a point of reference, and returns like most Western critics to Warhol, Koons, and Hirst.  The Warhol comparison dovetails perfectly, two Pop artists and their factories.

It is too convenient.  Like his primary inspiration, Shinro OHTAKE, Murakami resembles Warhol only superficially.  He lacks the irony, as well as the distance of a Lichtenstein. Instead, he participates fully in the stuff he draws, seeming as much of an otaku as the people who consume his work along with Nara, Ghibli, and Hello Kitty.  For Murakami, all reveal a baby Japan, the United States’ sidekick, and the subculture responding to that condition.

He articulates these ideas best not in his art, but the book Little Boy: The Arts of Japan’s Exploding Subculture.  It remains the best single-volume introduction to Japanese pop, and shows Murakami’s nuanced criticism.  It may be more important than his art.  I find nothing in his art that does not already exist, with more vitality, in the pop culture he mines.  He has also opened doors for younger artists, so that when the backlash against him finishes, he will still be historically important.

As for Schjeldahl, a critic I admire, he at least admits that “it has to be good for us” New Yorkers to admit they’re not the center of the world.  “Contemporary Art” has largely been a New York thing.  That’s not the best place to see how fragile an institution it is, a few mom-and-pop galleries propped up by a some moneyed collectors.  So when he claims Murakami is “flooding the world with the Murakami brand,” it’s really just 15, maybe 20 big cities.  Besides, there aren’t any centers, just peripheries.


I have not yet seen (C) Murakami, and so made do reading the book. I have seen several of his works in person, though, in the 2001 My Reality exhibit and here and there in Japan and New York.
(C) Murakami runs through July 13 at the Brooklyn Museum, after its popular opening at LA MOCA.

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