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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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