Author Archives: Siheng Zhu

From Andy Warhol to Takashi Murakami: Pop Legacy Passing Down Across Culture


Andy Warhol and his Pop Art during the 1960s inspired a large number of contemporary artists, including the now-famous Japanese visual artist Takashi Murakami. Though Murakami managed to innovate Warhol’s methods and idea, in essence, he also suffers from the same popular culture contradiction Warhol faced in his time. This essay analyzes the methods and works done by Andy Warhol and Takashi Murakami and explore Murakami’s intake and innovation of Warhol’s legacy, as well as the similarity between the two artists in terms of their interpretation of the popular culture of their times.


Andy Warhol’s contribution to Pop Art and the general Artworld is astonishing, yet controversial sometimes since his creations remodeled the Artworld’s perspective of “what can be used as ART.” As a successful commercial illustrator during his early times, Andy Warhol’s way of ‘shopping’ himself into the Artworld and rising to his fame is achieved through the use of mass-culture products during the 1960s United States. Instead of his former ways of ‘utilizing Art in advertisements,’ Warhol developed his way of reverse engineering the process and use the idea of it to ‘render advertisements to Art.’ His famous paintings of Campbell Soup Cans, Coca-Cola Bottles, and later portraits of American celebrity Marilyn Monroe demonstrated his obsession in the cycles of ‘money, product, and celebrities’. However, these representations are not merely reflecting his obsessions, but also the general American’s obsession in fame and post-war consumer culture at the time.

Warhol and his works have a profound influence to the later emerging artists, including Takashi Murakami (村上 隆), a Japanese contemporary artist, who successfully adopted his legacy and built up a unique interpretation of Pop Art belonged to him and his socio-cultural background of Japan. In the mid-1990s, he emerged to the international Artworld through integrating his paintings and sculptures with Japanese popular culture elements extracted from anime and manga, creating images and figures of exaggerated pop culture characters that genuinely reflects Japanese ‘otaku’ spirit, and ‘questions’ the future of Japanese popular culture.

Methods and Medium

Silk screening technique is Andy Warhol’s signature method of painting his works of Art. The process involves “pressing pigments of color through a silk screen with a pre-made stencil design.” Warhol started using this technique during the early 1960s since it supports his mass production of works. In 1962 at the Ferus Gallery, Warhol hung 32 of his silkscreen painted Campbell Soup Cans during his show to create a ‘grocery store’ effect, which openly challenges the Artworld’s idea of “what a valid art subject should be.” Silk screening technique also provides Warhol with an element of ‘surprise,’ which allows him to play with essentially the same image multiple times, applying different colors to it, and creating unique and unintended effects. His most celebrity painting ‘Marilyn Diptych’ featuring many Marilyn Monroe’s portraits with different color themes is a great example of such an attempt. Though compared to that of his other cluster repeated images such as the Campbell Soup Cans mentioned above, Warhol seems to create an ‘aspect-to-aspect’ transition between each one of Monroe’s portrait to generate certain mood instead of ‘grocery store like’ atmosphere. Therefore, to Warhol, the silk screening technique is both the way of mass production and a way of experimenting with different colors and themes.

Influenced by Warhol, Takashi Murakami is also obsessed with using silk screening as the primary way of painting. His early work, Such as the portraits of his signature figure Mr. DOB, is Murakami’s playful way of using different colors in the same image. However, Murakami did not stop the adoption of silk screening from Warhol. He expanded it and put his identity into using the silk screening technique to demonstrate Japanese craftsman spirit. Similar to the traditional Japanese craftsman, Murakami’s development into silk screening can best be described as faithfully preserving the traditional crafts while devoting himself to enhancing his skills.

Gero Tan (Left image. created in 2002) and a close-up photo of 500 Arhats (Right image, created in 2014) (photo credited to MCA-Chicago)

After the creation of the famous ‘727’ painting which exhibits in MoMA, he continued his exploration into enhancing his skills and finished the painting of ‘Tan Tan Bo Puking (aka. Gero Tan)’, an evolution of Murakami’s silkscreen art combined with the facilitation of digital illustration mappings. The piece is a large-scale painting with a significant amount of details that utilized thousands of silk screens to accomplish. However, Murakami himself seems not quite satisfied with ‘Gero Tan’ since all its colors are still single colors painted next to one another, without visible overlapping to create more details. Thus in 2014, he showcased one of his most ambitious painting called the ‘500 Arhats’. In this 300 foot long piece, Murakami utilized his newly developed technique with silk screens and painted multiple layers of colors over every passage of the Arhats’ body, creating even more complex layers of representations that blow all his previous works to the ground. Therefore, if Andy Warhol’s use of silk screening technique is to resemble commercial advertisements that reflect American’s post-war consumer culture, Takashi Murakami’s use of silkscreen is embodied with the Japanese traditional craftsmanship which enables him to challenge himself over and over again to create more details in his works of Art.

The Factory and Kaikai-Kiki

Andy Warhol had his art studio named “The Factory” after one of his employee’s idea since his silk screening and painting of pop culture products resemble that of an assembly line of a factory. However, though Warhol does engage in a certain extent of mass-production paintings, his Factory is still primarily an intellectual experiment ground of new form of arts ranging from painting to music, and films.

Warhol’s ‘Factory’ (Left, photo credited to and Kaikai-Kiki Studio (Right, photo credited to studio nevin)

Takeshi Murakami borrowed the idea of Warhol’s Factory and transformed his Kaikai-Kiki factory into both a studio and also a real factory of art. According to Lubow (2005), Murakami’s Kaikai-Kiki factory is just like the combination of a typical Japanese workspace, his 60 employees in Kaikai-Kiki are required to punch in with computerized timecards, and work for long hours regularly every day, every week. For new hires, Kaikai-Kiki offers them training manuals. Having a factory-like studio is one of the keys for Murakami to either mass-produce his art or producing massive art. As mentioned above, Murakami adopted Warhol’s method of using silkscreen for painting. Even though silkscreen painting significantly increased speed and efficiency of art, for artists like Murakami who love to engage in ambitiously large-scaled works, it would be nearly impossible for himself to finish one single piece along with all the details he pursues in his paintings. However, with the helping hand of his numerous employees, Murakami can create achieve his goal. Murakami described that his work is a cycle of production, where he produces the ideas with small drawings and give to his assistants, his assistants computerize, draw, and finish the art and bring back for his feedback.

Appreciating Yet Condemning popular Culture

During Andy Warhol’s period, American celebrities are the representations of American popular culture. Warhol himself is also fascinated in celebrity culture, and countless female celebrities have been immortalized into his now timeless artworks, which kept them famous even after their death. Among all the Warhol’s female celebrity creations, Marilyn Monroe becomes one of Warhol’s most famous as well as most debated pieces of creation. Warhol’s Marilyn Monroe series is littered with codes thanks to how influential Marilyn Monroe herself is. Monroe was the Queen of Hollywood, an icon of popular culture, and an eternal “sex symbol” of American culture.

Marilyn Monroe by Andy Warhol (1967) (photo credited to Siheng Zhu)

Moreover, with Warhol’s use of silk screening and application of commercial bright, vibrant colors, the portrait of Monroe seems to transcend into something somewhat superhuman, otherworldly, and even “Saint-like.” According to Needham (2015), Warhol returned to Marilyn Monroe several times during his career and increased both ‘quota (150 Black, White, and Grey Marilyns, 1979) and ‘saintliness’ (40 Gold Marilyns, 1980). This continuous return has reflected not only Warhol’s obsession with celebrities, but also his perception of post-war American fan culture, where people seem to give their idols a ‘mask’ of holiness, and immortality.          When approaching Marilyn’s portrait under the context it was made, things seem to be somewhat different. Warhol appeared to make his first series of Marilyn two weeks after her sudden death on August 5, 1962. Therefore, it seems that there is a cast of shadow over the creation of the first Marilyns and her death. Moreover, it seems that under all those bright colors that celebrate her stardom, there is a slight mood of sadness and mourning which grants this artwork a symbol of pity and death. Warhol himself confirmed this relation in Popism, and he said:

My first experiment with screens were heads of Troy Donahue and Warren Beatty, and then when Marilyn Monroe happened to die that month, I got the idea to make screens of her beautiful face — the first Marilyns.

Warhol attempts to use the glamorous colors to symbolize that although seemingly saint and holy, celebrities like Marilyn Monroe are just normal human beings. They can never shine like stars forever, they may suffer from pain and regret as regular people do, and they certainly cannot escape the hand of death — a perfect way of warning Americans of their obsession with material culture and fame. Besides, Warhol also utilized Marilyn as self-reflect, as he was also constantly seeking for the same fame and celebrity that his celebrity subjects enjoyed. Warhol’s Marilyns are also fascinating subjects in terms of depicting women. All of his Marilyn paintings seem to emphasize Marily n has sexualized facial features such as her lip, her eyeshadows, her skin, and her hair. As previously stated, Warhol likes to apply his silkscreen paintings with  commercial bright and vibrant colors, which perfectly symbolizes the idea of ‘Pop.’ However, using these colors on his Marilyns, especially on her facial features will render Marilyn superficial, as well as to enlarge and exaggerate her sexual values. Besides, while Warhol utilizes the ‘Saint-like’ representation of Marilyn to give the audience an impression of immortality, he also rids her from any signs of aging and flaws, leaving Warhol continuously being speculated as well as criticized as “sexist” or “anti-feminist.”

Murakami’s approach to popular culture figures is also profoundly affected by the idea of Pop Art, which is to use mass culture icons and symbols as a satire of contemporary socio-cultural phenomenon. Similar to Warhol’s contradicting perception of both obsessed yet criticizing celebrity culture, Murakami coined himself an advocate of otaku culture ( Japanese popular culture related to anime, manga, and video games), but still found himself standing in a position to condemn it from time to time. The primary reason for Murakami to speak for otaku culture comes from the public’s ignorance of otaku. Since the incident of Tsutomu Miyazaki (‘otaku killer’ that commit serial killing of 4 young girls) in 1989, Japanese society was filled with discrimination towards otaku community due to their misunderstanding. Therefore Murakami seeks to find a way to explain otaku culture to the society. He said in an interview with the Journal of Contemporary Art, that he thought he could ‘grasp an understanding of present Japan by analyzing otaku.’ Murakami’s analysis of otaku culture led him into creating life-size sculptures that both represent the ideas of contemporary comic culture and a critic from himself. One of the earliest sculpture works done by Murakami is ‘Miss Ko2’ (1998), a busty, long-legged, blue-eyed blond waitress, whose entire figure represents a collective aesthetic ‘ideal female’ of otaku culture. ‘Miss Ko2’ marks Murakami’s earliest attempt of visualizing otaku culture trends into stunning and exaggerated figures. In 2011, Murakami’s idea of compiling otaku aesthetic had pushed his representation of form and contents to a new extreme. The ‘3-Meter Girl’, showcased during Murakami’s 2011 exhibit in Gagosian Museum in London, is an exaggerated anime figure featuring a pair of hyper enlarged breast, an abundant hairstyle, a highly sexualized outfit, and a cute yet seductive standing pose. Like Warhol, who continuously stay on the far front of pop culture, Murakami is also continually chasing the new trend of Japanese otaku culture. When asked whether he view this figure as “beautiful,” Murakami replied that:

Not personally. I had a discussion with some comic writer about the contemporary trend of sexuality among otakus. He said that the latest trend is ‘mother complex’, where huge breasts is the sexuality icon […] It is not my taste. It is the taste of the young generations.

Therefore, If the previously mentioned ‘Miss Ko2’ figure represents the ostensible beauty of late 1990s Japanese culture, the creation of ‘3-Meter  Girl’ by Murakami can be a refreshing view of contemporary Japanese popular culture and society.

3-Meter Girl (Left image. 2011, photo credited to Gagosian Museum in London). ミュセル (Middle image, a digital illustration created by Pixiv artist ピスケ). Gyaru Model (Right image, photo credited to

Murakami cleverly utilized icons and symbols to land his criticism on contemporary Japanese popular culture. If sifted through, the figure of ‘3-Meter Girl’ represents an iconic female ‘gyaru (ギャル),’ who are typically characterized as having bleached or dyed hair (mostly shades from dark brown to blonde), tanned skin, highly decorated nails, dramatic makeup, sexy clothing, and wild attitude. The popularity of ‘gyaru wave’ reached its peak in the 1990s and early 2000s then changed and became more accessible and widely popular in Japan in the 2010s. To some extent, gyaru styled girls represent a highly recognizable and iconic ‘subculture fashion’ among Japanese pop culture communities. Moreover, due to the birth of gyaru being possibly related Japan’s unstable economic, socio-economic condition after the Japanese Bubble period, Murakami’s use of such figure in his ‘3-Meter Girl’ can be characterized as a representation of a sexual yet unstable aesthetic of young Japanese generations. Such a view can be further analyzed by looking at the character’s standing pose. During the heyday of Japanese kawaii culture (cute culture), young female Japanese usually apply the aesthetic of cute to themselves, expressed by the gesture of ‘burikko,’ or ‘pretended childish cute’ (Kinstella, 1995). In Murakami’s Gagosian exhibition, anyone familiar to Japanese otaku culture would immediately recognize that the ‘3-Meter Girl’ is also making an iconic ‘burikko’ gesture, seemingly to suggest that she is ‘cute.’ Considering the ‘mother complex’ theme, Murakami intended to deliver with ‘3-Meter Girl’; her signature ‘burikko’ seems to pose a sharp contrast to her’ role,’ which possibly suggesting something deeper behind her ostensible’ cuteness.’ McLelland commented on the issue of Japanese kawaii culture, stating that it is “a ubiquitous and hence extremely unstable signifier. Furthermore, he also pointed out that “kawaii culture transfers from products and merchandises to the national identity of Japan; the result is a nation-state grounded in undetermined, unstable values.” Murakami seems to be well aware of this issue, and he tried to present this unstable and contradicting values in his sculptures. In order to express the popular sexuality trend of ‘mother complex’ among Japanese otakus, Murakami hyper enlarged her breast, the signature feature of ‘mature women’ to achieve the astounding yet disturbing look viewers has in their first impressions. He also gave the character a ‘maid outfit,’ which symbolizes care-taker to emphasize her role further. However, the ‘burikko’ gesture taken by this character suggests a ‘childish cuteness’ which may never have appeared in a ‘mother-like’ figure. Therefore, it seems that through using such contradiction, Murakami is attempting to criticize the Japanese kawaii culture for its unstable values, and maybe to further condemn Japanese society itself for its loss of stable social values.


As one of Warhol’s admirers, Takashi Murakami adopted Warhol’s working method, his idea of his studio, and his perception of popular culture significantly throughout his career. His intake and application of Warhol’s legacy are strictly Japanese, including applying Japanese values such as craftsmanship to silk screenings, and the ‘renovation’ of art factory into a factory of art featuring contemporary Japanese workplace culture. However, both Warhol and Murakami’s work of art greatly suggests that they are, in fact, contradictive towards the popular culture environment of their age. Warhol’s depiction of celebrity figures not only suggests his interest in celebrity culture but also represent a criticism and reflection of himself and the superficially materialized American mass culture. Murakami, on the other hand, approaches his kind of contradiction through making life-sized figures with sexualized appearances. Though he is determined to stand up and speak for the socially discriminated Japanese otaku culture, Murakami also holds a rather critical view towards the progressive distorted values created by Japanese otaku culture and genuinely concerned about Japan losing its uniqueness in cultural values.


Works Cited:

Black, Daniel. “The Virtual Ideal: Virtual Idols, Cute Technology and Unclean Biology.” Continuum 22.1 (2008): 37–50. Web.

Bloomberg. “Murakami Says His Art Is Overpriced in ‘Scary’ Market.” YouTube, YouTube, 11 July 2011,

Eikenaar, Jannik Haruo. “Otaku Dreams: The Re-Membering of Japan in Murakami Takashi’s ‘Earth at My Window’.(Critical Essay).” Forum for World Literature Studies 3.1 (2011): 94–106. Print.

Kinstella, Sharon. “Cuties in Japan.” Women, Media, and Consumption in Japan . Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 1995. Print.

Lubow, Arthur. “THE MURAKAMI METHOD.” New York Times Magazine (2005): 48–57,64,76,79. Web.

Mako Wakasa. “Takashi Murakami.” Journal of Contemporary Art , 2000.

Needham, Gary. “Publicity and Pathos: Andy Warhol’s Marilyn Diptych (1962) in Context.” Film, Fashion & Consumption 4.2-3 (2015): 221–225. Web.

Shanes, Eric. Pop Art . New York, NY: Parkstone, 2009. Print.

Warhol, Andy. “Art at Mayo Clinic: Endangered Species.” Mayo Clinic Proceedings 77.5 (2002): 474. Web.

Warhol, Andy, and Hackett, Pat. POPism : the Warhol  ’60s . Orlando: Harcourt, 2006. Print.

The importance of interpretive interface

The general public does not understand what art is, and they may never will without a proper course to educate them. Sometimes they do not recognize artworks immediately as “Art,” other times, they may simply regard those “shapes” they do not understand to be “art” around them. So do we need to educate everyone to art so that everyone could appreciate artworks? Probably not. What we possibly need is to present artworks in a certain environment for the general public to see, to think, and to interpret actively. Certainly, there are many public spaces such as cities, streets and shopping malls striving to act as the interface of showing art, yet their representation as “artistic interface” has only generated a rather low-end appreciation of arts. People do like their exhibitions sometimes, yet their interpretations of artworks may only be confined either to their aesthetic beauty or to their unconventional ideas under their physical shapes. There is no space for more profound interpretation.

A sculpture made of LEGO blocks exhibited in a shopping mall in New Jersey, photo by Siheng Zhu

Compared to these public space of exhibition, museums not only provide people with a certain degree of “cultural stereotype” of being “artistic institutions,” but also offers people the “environment” and “circumstance” they need to conduct current interpretation of artworks. Take Rafael Lozano-Hemmer’s Pulse exhibition in Hirshhorn as an example. Anyone who visits the last room of light-bulb exhibition would be impressed by the overwhelming effect of light effects they see when he enters the rooms, and it would become even more impactful when he realizes that his heartbeat controls all the lights in this room. The artistic interaction between human biology and technology is the basic catch of this exhibition, and Hirshhorn museum as the interface has created a place of decoding for people to understand the meaning behind this exhibition. However, what if this light takes place in a park? Lozano-Hemmer one performed similar installation in New York City, where he installed his pulsing light-bulbs in the central oval field of Madison Square Park. The visualization is without a doubt impressive, yet did it achieve the same artistic level as the one shown in the Hirshhorn Museum? Maybe not. Edward Tufte states that ”good information visualizations allow interpreters to discover and understand meanings and relationships not apparent in the data or representations of objects themselves.” The museum, as a physical interface itself, acts as the vessel of interpretation as well as the vehicle of active meaning discovery. Therefore, it can be guaranteed that museums will never become alienated from human cultural society since their presence is one of the ”last resort” for human artistic thinking.

Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, “Pulse Park, Relational Architecture 14”, 2008.

Rafael Lozano-Hemmer’s Pulse Exhibition

Creating a dialog between arts is also imperative for creating a useful art interface. When looking at the Google Art Project Interface, one notable feature of it is to introduce, filter, as well as to form collections of artworks using the art movement they associate with. This way of categorizing indeed do help the audiences with understanding specific artworks’ year and date of creation, as well as the general art circumstances that affect these pieces. This way of interfacing lacks a basic understanding of historical connectedness artworks possess inside themselves. According to professor Irvine, a successful interface should be composed of a “meaning network” that allow nodes inside it to “break” and “group” freely, thus creating an interconnected relationship across the system. However, Google Art interface only offers a rigid categorization of art that seems to never “interact” with one another. Therefore, it may create confusions among audiences to make them believe that every art movement is “spontaneous” and came out with no foundation or relation to former movements. Therefore, Google art interface may need to consider adding more curated dialogues in their “exhibitions” in order to connect their collection of digital art pieces into a consistent “network” to create meaning and interpretation to understand art genuinely.

Reproduction and Extension of ideas

Benjamin (2003) mentioned in his article, that under a technologically advanced society of reproduction, artworks are gradually losing their “aura” that represents their uniqueness as well as importance. However, is that really a bad thing? Does that mean depriving the “divine power” of Art would inflict detrimental effect on the world of art? In my opinion, reproduction may not always be bad. With the development of digital media such as the internet, people in contemporary society are thus empowered to gain better access to all information, as well as engage in the process of reproduction themselves.

In popular culture communities, fans usually record anime, TV drama, or even scan manga for, reproduction. They then distribute their reproduced materials through the internet through ways like the peer to peer distribution networks. In this way, fans engaged in a participatory culture that makes themselves prosumers, meaning that they are both producers and consumers of culture. To the media industry, there are surely legal issues related to these fan activities, as they are hindering legitimate industry economy and infringing their original copyright. However, fan’s effort on distribution is, in fact, silent promotions to the industry as their products are reaching out to more people who may never get in touch with these media cultures before. The media industry, in return, gained extra attention from the public and receive and sometimes even received a boost to their sells.

Photographic Reproduction in fine art actually faces a similar situation as those in popular culture communities. In fact, photo reproductions of fine art pieces do not reduce the value of the original piece. In fact, they are the spiritual extension as well as a cultural vessel that could become easily accessed by the general public for appreciation and education. Since everyone may have their own ways of perceiving art, their perception may then add up to the pool of art knowledge that offers people more interpretations and more ways of interfacing art materials. Mass reproduction gives the art world a unique opportunity to enlarge their “market,” not from professional artists, but from the public as a whole.



Bohrer, Frederick. “PhotographicPerspectives: Photography and the Institutional Formation of Art History.” In Art History and Its Institutions: Foundations of a Discipline, edited by Elizabeth Mansfield. London; New York: Routledge, 2002.

Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Era of its Technological Reproducibility” (1936; rev. 1939).

Photos that conveys social, cultural, and technical values

Photo as a historical record: Invisible “light” that pictures our “Inner self” 

X-ray photography is somewhat different from general photography, which usually based on the capturing of an image through visible lights. The photo below was the first X-ray photography ever taken in Human history, which captured and recorded a major breakthrough in human scientific development.

The first X-ray image, “Hand mit Ringen” by Wilhelm Conrad Roentgen, 1895.

The hand in this photo is believed to be the hand of Wilhelm’s wife, features a “ghostly” picture of her hand, unlike any ever taken before, with long, shadowy finger bones and a large dark wedding ring. According to folktales, Wilhelm’s wife actually said, “I have seen my death!” and never set foot in his lab again.

A photo that opens up interpretation

The famous photo, as well as the 1985 book cover of National Geographic magazine, Afghan Girl is a fascinating piece of portrait taken by Steve McCurry. At that time, This iconic image has earned McCurry recognition and fame among photographic society, yet also opens up more interpretations towards this piece of work.

Sharbat Gula, Afghan Girl, at Nasir Bagh refugee camp near Peshawar, Pakistan, 1984.

For general public viewers,  this image is a symbol of Afghan, a country of myth, and a country of war. The big green eyes of her are haunted with fear, perhaps suggesting her fear of war and chaos. However, some people have different interpretations. They thought that the fear in her eyes is merely the fear of being photographed, since, in traditional middle east culture, women are not allowed to be photographed.

Photo as the carrier of “Anime-pilgrimage“ culture: 

Quite a few Japanese anime and manga stories actually take place in real-world locations and borrow their sceneries. Fans of these works regard these locations as “holy sites” and will attempt to find these places when they visit Japan. They take pictures of these places not only to indicate that they have been to these places but also suggest that they break the “dimensional boundary” between real life and anime. The picture below features my visit to Shimogamo Temple in Kyoto, an iconic spot where the anime “Eccentric Family” takes place.

A photo taken by myself in 2018, during my visit to Shimogamo Temple.

The scene in “The Eccentric Family” anime features using the exact same place.

Modern art evokes open interpretations

Modern art always fascinates me. They may not always consist of detailed and delicate lines and shadows to reflect “realism,” in fact, many modern arts does lack the “details” pursued by realism artists. However, modern art treasures to the art world not because of their details or techniques, but the ideas beyond their canvases: modern art is always open for interpretation.

As one of the representatives of post-impressionism art, Georges Seurat is well-known for his pointillism technique of illustrations. To him, the use of colored dots to build up an image means a deviation of thought from both classics and impressionist. However, his choice of using such technique can also be seen as a “mixture” of ideas from both genres above, since he is both pursuing some level of details while still maintaining the vibrancy of his colors.

One of his works, the Seascape at Port-en-Bessin depicts a natural seaside landscape with greenish hills and peaceful blue ocean. However, a closer look at this piece shows that hills may not just be composed of green, and the sea may not be represented only by blueish colors. Seurat once said that Art should be about “harmony; the analogy of the contrary and similar elements of tone, color, and line.” In his seascape painting, Seurat skillfully used an equivalent quantity of warm and cold color “pixels” to express a rather calm picture; a way that not many artists at his time ever attempt to do. In addition, his use of colored dots also leaves an open interpretation of their use. “Are they used just to balance the mood? Or do they represent something present in the picture?”

Another one of his art pieces and perhaps his most famous one is the “Sunday Afternoon On The Island Of La Grande Jatte.” I this painting, Seurat also made use of harmonious color effect to achieve a calm and leisure beach-side environment. However, as a painter who is still been influenced by impressionist thoughts, he left the emotions and interactions among people on the beach largely “vague.” Therefore opens a “conversation” between viewers and the painting regarding the relationships and mood of people inside this art piece.

If Seurat’s works are not enough for evoking active interpretations, then Rene Magritte is definitely the artist that “plays with meanings” in every one of his art pieces. Magritte’s surrealistic paintings often cause his viewers to execute what psychology called a “cognitive closure,” which is described as the human desire to “fill-in-the-gap” and arrive at certain conclusions. This subconscious intention is the major driving force for people’s open interpretation of his works. 

What is the landscape behind the painting? What does the man look like behind the green apple? A thousand people may have a thousand interpretations regarding their perceptions. However, as Magritte once pointed out about his paintings, that “my images conceal nothing; they evoke mystery and, indeed, when one sees one of my pictures, one asks oneself this simple question, ‘What does that mean?’. It does not mean anything, because mystery means nothing either, it is unknowable.” The beauty of modern art is its ability to evoke interpretations. There are no right or wrong answers, yet the interpretation process they create is always the most precious to its viewers.

Research questions about Art and Semiotics

  1. Nearly every piece of work in the museum has an attached label placed for visitors to understand its name, author, socio-cultural background, and sometimes even meanings. This makes me wonder: How far should this explanation go? Should it just contain a certain amount of necessary information? Or should it be as comprehensive as possible?
  2. Will the existence of labels and explanations in museums (especially in modern art galleries) restrict peoples’ interpretation of artworks? Will they hinter people’s imaginations?
  3. Famous art pieces are always a great reference and base for remixing and re-creating something new (like the Starry Georgetown Night in Lauinger Library, and the video linked below.) Do these new re-creations alters the original meaning of these famous works? Or we should typically view them independently? Link: the elegant gentleman’s guide to knife fighting – animations –
  4. Does the interpretation of artwork require spacial and environmental specification? Since Visual representation is all about visual (or sight) descriptions of meaning, does artworks need a specific environment (or setting) built for them for a greater degree of interpretations?

The Phillips Collection Reflections

Daniel Buren states in his short essay “Function of Museum” (Buren, 1985), that the museum is an empowered place dedicated to showing the aesthetic value of its collections. It provides an “effective support” that gives certain artworks the meaning and identity as “Art.” Alexander (2007) also mentioned that the museum was once defined as “the place of muses” for people who pursue beauty, to “think deeply and to learn.” Modern art museums may still preserve such function, as they are acting as an interface for dialogue between audience with artworks, and also between artwork themselves. My visit to the Phillip’s Collection has given me an entirely new perspective on how essential as well as how overwhelming art pieces could become if they are displayed in a museum setting; museum provides a context for its collection to demonstrate their meanings.

Looking at the real painting gives your loads of “physical information” about the artwork, its scale, its layer of colorings, its perfect proportion of grids and squares, as well as its textures and cracks due to aging. If we consider a website image as an encoded message, watching it in the museum yields tips and tricks on decoding such signal.

Besides, the two paintings, though appear to be quite modern and abstract in style, are in fact hanging near the fireplace of a traditional European ballroom, next to a veiled piano. This peculiar way of curating exhibition attracted me to the paintings nearly instantaneously, since they are possibly the least art pieces I may ever imagine to encounter in a traditional western house. However, their element of the misfit in such environment is what makes them unique.

A previous study of how long people stay looking at an artwork yields the result of approximately 3 seconds per piece. Imagine these two paintings where to be displayed in the modern white walls of a contemporary art museum, will people still come and stand in front of them for minutes trying to grasp the meaning behind those grids? Or even, to merely appreciate how Piet Mondrian, the artist, painted these pieces so painstakingly that they become the perfect demonstrations of proportions and colors.

In addition, artworks are usually confined in their canvases so that people “know” that they are looking at a piece of art. Leaving the canvas behind may make some “abstract art” alienated from the meaning of being “Art” itself. Leaving the exhibition rooms and enter the Phillips Collection Café, I noticed that the walls of this café are the precise imitation of the grids of Composition No.III. However, leaving the confine of its canvas and becoming a wall decoration has stripped Composition No.III out of its aesthetic properties; they are merely beautiful grids that decorate a wall, not an art piece anymore.

The Rothko room is one of the most impressive exhibition I ever stepped into in art museums. When I first look at its pictures online, it is rather hard for me to grasp the meaning of devoting a special room for several pieces of “painting” that only features color blocks. Also, I could not fathom the meaning of putting a single bench in the center of the room. What is the point of such display? Was there a special meaning of having a bench indie this room? Yet my physical visit to the room has proven all my previous questions pointless. Rothko once said that he paints large works is precisely because he wants to be “very intimate and human.” As large pictures give him a sense of being “inside” the painting. Sitting on the bench inside Rothko’s room gives me the exact feeling of being inside the paintings. All The painting on each wall surrounding the room has created an environment that, whenever tried to turn my head to the other direction, colors change and I found myself “drowning” deeper and deeper into the ocean of colors. The experience is so overwhelming that I nearly wanted to flee out of the room just to escape from being so “embraced” by colors. This kind of effect may never be achieved by looking at pictures of the room, or even through augmented reality displays.

This small field trip has given me the impression that the art museum is no longer a simple collection of paintings and sculptures, but rather an empowered place where communications and though between artworks and its audiences take place. Maybe only in the context of the museum, could artworks become so overwhelmingly powerful and meaningful compared to a simple display of them in an online archive.


Brian O’Doherty, Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space. Berkeley, CA: Univ. of California Press, 1986. Selections: focus on Chapter 1, pp. 13-34.

Daniel Buren, “Function of the Museum.” In Theories of Contemporary Art, edited by Richard Hertz, 2nd ed., 189–92. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1985.

Edward P. Alexander and Mary Alexander, Museums in Motion: An Introduction to the History and Functions of Museums, Second Edition (Mountain Creek, CA; London, UK: Altamira Press, 2007).