By Abby Bisbee
Andy Warhol has taken his place in art history as the father of Pop art as it is consumed today. While there were earlier artists that influenced the Pop movement such as Rauschenberg, it can be argued the Warhol has been the most influential in the manner that pop art is consumed in the twenty-first century. In the late 1960s and early 1970s Warhol began to make his “Death in America” series focusing on subject matter that depicting traumatic and often gruesome photographs of death. In the series Warhol still implemented his signature “machine” methodology of printmaking; the pieces still centered on the repetition of the image. The use of repetition has been interpreted in several different ways by scholars, some arguing that it promotes the effect of the image, others stating that it dilutes the power of the subject. The largest question that has arisen through this period in Warhol’s work is whether the art is representational or simulacral (Foster); in other words, does the art merely depict an image that has been separated from its context and is only significant to the viewer in its formal quality or does the repeated subject still translate a particular meaning because one can never completely disassociate himself from context. The conclusion that both the author Hal Foster and I have come to is that it is indeed both. The representational element or the context cannot be taken away from the subject, but it is the manner in which Warhol uses repetition to create a simulacral piece of art that ends up reinforcing the power of the image.
Takashi Murakami came onto the contemporary-art scene in the 1990s with a Japanese interpretation of Pop art. Murakami’s “pop strategy for mixing references to canonical art – historical figures or subjects with consumer sources is analogous to the work of Andy Warhol” (Darling). Murakami has taken his traditional training in nihonga, a “hybrid of European and traditional Japanese painting” created in the 19th century, and merged it with images inspired by modern Japanese pop culture (Lubow). In the late 1990s, Murakami coined the technique of “Superflat” where images have a start two-dimensional quality, particularly in his paintings. This technique has been strongly influenced by traditional Japanese painting and is used to “indicate a mix of high and low art” (Vogel). Where Warhol’s art was both heavily weighted on the representational and the simulacral, Murakami’s art is blatantly representational. Over the course of his career his artwork has moved from channeling the sexual overtones of the okatu culture in Japan to the modern cute culture. The latter, surprisingly, may actually serve to bring greater awareness of death and evil in our world. In the following two paragraphs, I will examine two pieces of art by Murakami that use cute culture to draw attention to underlying social issues that he believes are prevalent in Japanese culture today.
Time-Bokan, acrylic, canvas, wood, 2001.
Time-Bokan (2001) is an image that Murakami has integrated dozens of times. In it he has taken a popular image of a mushroom cloud, flattened the image by highly contrasting it and separating the image and the background only using two colors, pink and white. Needless to say, the mushroom cloud represents a dark hour for the people of Japan dating back to World War II when the US dropped two atomic bombs over the country. The atomic bomb is representative of death and pain as well as the loss of cultural identity and power. In Hal Foster’s piece, “Death in America,” he notes that the repetition used in Warhol’s artwork in his series of Death in America reinforces the traumatic because you are not only confronted by the image once, but several times. It is his technique rather than the subject matter that makes the work so much more powerful.
Similarly, Murakami uses his technique to draw attention to the subject matter. In Time-Bokan Murakami takes the outline of the mushroom cloud and implements his cute culture techniques to transform the cloud into a face. While the resulting image still appears to be a skeleton, thus still calling to the trauma in the painting, Murakami has used his “Superflat” technique and use of “cute” colors to draw it away from realism and to diffuse the trauma of the piece. But, as Foster similarly argues about Warhol, it is this diffusion of the trauma of the subject that forces the viewer to examine the not only the context of the piece, but the meaning behind its portrayal. Like Warhol, Murakami takes the “mass subject” to portray the “anonymous victims of history,” in this case the Japanese history (Foster). As Lubow notes, “fear and anger…[are]…adopted right on the surface.” Murakami has used cute culture to illustrate his position on contemporary Japanese society. When curating an exhibition with the Japan Society in New York in 2005, he referred to his country as an “unmoored, apolitical state” (Japan Society). By taking these powerful images of the atomic bomb and transforming them into something more easily consumed, he is referencing how current Japanese society has addressed the world since WWII from the position of child, living in a dream world. Time-Bokan is only one example of how Murakami has addressed current social and political issues within Japanese society, but its technique and use of death emphasize the power that Pop art has been able to have ever since the time of Warhol.
Darling, Michael. “Plumbing the Depths of Superflatness.” Art Journal, 60. 3 (2001): 76-89. Print.
Foster, Hal. “Death in America.” October, 75. (1996): 36-59. Print.
Arthur Lubow, “The Murakami Method,” New York Times Magazine, April 3, 2005.
“Little Boy: The Arts of Japan’s Exploding Subculture.” Japan Society, 2005. Web. 22 Oct 2013. <http://www.japansociety.org/little_boy_the_arts_of_japans_exploding_subculture>.
Carol Vogel, “The Murakami Influence,” New York Times, April 6, 2005.