Takashi Murakami knows how to make an entrance.
He arrives at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth with a posse of two darling human-sized plush octopi that flank him and hop around with the limited physicality of Teletubbies. Murakami’s jacket is bedazzled with an octopus print and the octopi-fringe on his skirt wafts around his legs as if the tentacles are alive.
On his head is a plush octopus hat of a size usually reserved for Ascot. Even the setting has been orchestrated to the Cephalopoda theme for the retrospective exhibition, “Takashi Murakami: The Octopus Eats Its Own Leg.”
In the giant stairway chamber, enormous tentacled appendages swirl on the walls in a frenzy of bright colors like an aquatic paisley print. Topping the staircase is “Chakras Open and I Drown Under the Waterfall of Life,” 2017, it is the flip side of the happy frenzy on the walls, a dark beast of an octopus that stands almost 17 feet tall, with a skull head and graffiti-covered body, a fearsome specter of death.
This duality of a happy life force and ultimate death plays out in the work of Murakami. From the first gallery to the last, there is joyful enthusiasm followed by the "yes, but ..." of the inevitable end.
How Murakami came to be an international art star is systematically recorded through the galleries with more than 50 pieces that span three decades of his output. But Murakami does more than just produce for the walls of a museum, he decals the restaurant walls with his happy face flowers and installs red neon skulls on either side of the entrance. The gift shop is awash in Murakami merch.
This go-big-or-stay-home footprint was a lesson he learned in the late 1980s from artists Jeff Koons and Damian Hirst. Murakami was floundering and questioning his position in the art world, and when he saw their works that were treated as fine art but could and were often called kitsch, he realized straddling the line between the two obliterated the line.
“What is the border? My reality is this borderline is almost melting,” he says.
Soon after this epiphany he created his self-identity icon, Mr. DOB. He says the visual was inspired by the manga figures Sonic the Hedgehog and Doraemon. The result actually owes more to Walt Disney’s Mickey Mouse, as Mr. DOB has two round ears, usually tatted with the letters D and B, and a round face. He often appears cute and small but can swell to cinematic size when needed.
When Murakami was 36 he woke up one morning and found one of his legs had swollen to twice its usual size. He imagined the worse, something terminal he was sure, and was relieved and almost embarrassed that it was diagnosed as gout, brought on by overwork, and overindulgence in noodle lunches and alcohol. “Tan Tan Bo, Puking,” 2002 was the artistic record of his pain and misery. Mr. DOB “had become too big to support his own weight of ego,” Murakami says.
Mr. DOB clearly illustrates the trauma of illness both psychosomatic and real in the piece that is almost most 12 feet long.
As Murakami began his ascent in the international firmament of art and style stars, he collaborated with other eager strivers — fashion designer Marc Jacobs at Louis Vuitton in 2003 to create handbags, ($300 million in sales); Vans, for shoes, (originally $75, now on eBay for three times as much); with Kanye West for his “Graduation” album cover in 2007, and with Pharrell Williams in 2014 for Murakami’s animated film “Jellyfish Eyes,” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0-LuF-hPcTw
You too can own a Murakami-designed product, the gift shop is full of them. Most of are from his Kawaii period. It's a term that means cute, as in Hello Kitty adorableness. It is a well-respected art form in Japan where cute does not bear the pejorative that it does in the West. His flowers with huge smiles are his own super emojis that cover walls and balls (and the Modern’s cafe windows). So do his skulls, darling ones, of course. They are often incised into the backgrounds of his paintings as a constant reminder of inevitable.
“I experimented with colorful, skulls,” he explains, “to think about death without making it dark. I would make it fun.” He was addressing children, and admits he often sends messages to children.
He recognizes the need to appeal to a broad age range, and he is conditioning his next generation of fans. “My new audience is the kids, art, fashion, street and high fashion, everything is mixing and much more concrete. That is now the situation, the internet communication generation.”
At one time, blatant commercialism by fine artists was considered gauche (Murakami included a Vuitton gift shop in the middle of a 2007 exhibition in Los Angeles; some reviewers clasped their pearls in horror.). The horror has dissipated. Artists are doing what has been done with their art for centuries, only now they are positioned on the front end of the profit chain.
Amid the international success, Murakami was having a crisis of creativity, says Michael Darling, chief curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago. He is the organizer of this exhibition and author of the magnificent catalog that accompanies it (Skira Rizzoli Publications, $65).
The personal crisis came to end when the country of Japan was faced with a horrific one. In March of 2011 Murakami’s world was literally rocked when an earthquake and resultant tsunami washed over Japan taking thousands of lives and leaving massive destruction. Then the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant failed. For Murakami the devastation was similar to the stories his mother told of the aftermath of the Nagasaki bombing, which she has witnessed.
Murakami felt he needed a response to the disaster. He embodied it in the Arhat series of paintings.
The Arhats were Buddhist figures on the path to enlightenment but who stayed in this world to help others. Originally there were 16, but as the world became more complex, or because suffering needed more precise help, there are now hundreds of Arhats, each with a specific identity and purpose.
Murakami began making paintings of the Arhats. First “69 Arhats”, then “100 Arhats” and his most ambitious is a 300-foot-long painting depicting “500 Arhats.” It took an army of 100 artists in Murakami’s Kaikai Kiki studios in Tokyo to complete “500 Arhats.”
Where his earlier works are flat, or “Super Flat” as he calls it, describing the two dimensional qualities of composition and color that have their origins in Japanese art, the Arhats’ flat surfaces roil with patterns and colors. What might look pink from across the gallery is never just pink. It is red, orange, white, yellow and sometimes with flecks of gold. A close look at his surfaces is one of the greatest joys of viewing the work.
Murakami would sketch the Arhats, assistants would refine his drawings, and computer-generated silk screens would be employed, and the assistants would handscreen the colors. Layer upon layer, with Murakami fine-tuning the placement and colors as the works evolved.
As everything is stored on computer files, Murakami is able to use the images multiple times. This regeneration of images is the genesis of the exhibition title, “The Octopus Eats Its Own Leg” — an octopus can lose a limb and regenerate a new one.
However, this ability to regenerate his art has some space limitations. The Modern has mounted “69 Arhats” and “100 Arhats,” but as large as the museum is, it cannot accommodate “500 Arhats.” But the ceiling is tall enough for two 14-foot-tall sculptures that guard the Arhat gallery, “Embodiment of A” and “Embodiment of UM.” Fearsome and wonderful, they peek over the second floor balcony and demand to be seen up close.
The Modern has done a masterful job mounting the exhibition and allowing Murakami to infuse his art throughout the building. From the first gallery, where some of his very earliest works are presented, much to Murakami’s chagrin, to the monumental ones that he now produces with his many assistants, it is a very special treat to see how he has moved from early Mr. DOB, silkscreened poorly on a flimsy yellow T-shirt, to the latest works, which are breathtaking in their complexity.
This is the last stop for Murakami’s retrospective. It has already been presented at Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, and at the Vancouver Art Gallery.
It will be in Fort Worth through Sept. 16, and it is a lovely way to spend a summer’s day.
While there are a few sculptural pieces not suitable for young children, they are relegated to a small gallery with cautionary signage and are easily avoided. The Modern expects this to be one of their most popular exhibitions, and it should be, both in number of attendees and in appreciation for the effort.
“Takashi Murakami: The Octopus Eats Its Own Leg”
June 10–Sept. 16
The Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth
3232 Darnell St.
(The museum will offer half-price tickets Sundays and free admission Fridays during the run of this exhibition.)