When the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago decided to organize a major exhibition devoted to superstar Japanese artist Takashi Murakami, it could easily have concentrated on sunny works featuring his trademark smiley-face flowers or cartoon-like character, Mr. DOB.
‘Takashi Murakami: The Octopus Eats Its Own Leg’ When: June 6-Sept. 24 Where: Museum of Contemporary Art, 220 E. Chicago Info: mcachicago.org
But chief curator Michael Darling wanted to do something different. He sought to go beyond the familiar and reveal a lesser-known, more wide-ranging and ultimately more profound side of this creative dynamo, whose pop and kitsch are sometimes too easily dismissed.
“There is so much more to him as an artist than people give him credit for,” said Darling, who first worked with Murakami in 2001 when he was a research assistant at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art.
The result is “Takashi Murakami: The Octopus Eats Its Own Leg” – the artist’s first major retrospective in the United States in 10 years. It opens June 6 and runs through Sept. 24 at the MCA and then travels in 2018 to the Vancouver Art Gallery in British Columbia and Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth (Texas).
Certainly, Murakami, 52, is a neo-pop artist who draws inspiration from Japanese animation and comic books and likes to blur the boundaries between so-called high and low art with his mass-market product lines and collaborations with rapper Kanye West and the fashion house, Louis Vuitton.
“For sure, there was a moment when he was playing to that, and that was the defining aspect of his work,” Darling said.
The exhibition, which spans three decades and encompasses more than 50 works, does not ignore this popular face of the artist. For example, “Flowerball 2” (2002) and “Flowerball 3D” (2008), round paintings brimming with his bright, smiley-face flowers, will be mounted on wallpaper with similar motifs for what the curator calls “maximum optical overload.” “This is the Murakami that people will know and recognize,” he said.
But such work is just one facet of this show. To highlight aspects of Murakami’s artistry that Darling believes have been overlooked, he decided to focus the exhibition on the evolution of the artist’s paintings, emphasizing his seriousness and commitment to history and tradition.
“I want, of course, people to luxuriate in the eye candy of the flowers and things like that, but I also wanted to tell this other story,” Darling said. “And he was willing to go down that road with us.”
The exhibition opens with virtually unknown works from the beginnings of Murakami’s career, including some never shown previously in the United States. They show him trying out artistic styles and approaches from both the East and West that he would ultimately merge in his own distinctive voice.
These include a set of three somber figurative works like “Picture of a Turtle ‘I Spin’” (1986), which draw on the traditional Nihonga style of Japanese painting, and a trio of small monochromatic pieces that look toward Western conceptual ideas.
Around 2007-08, as Murakami’s career was surging, Darling said, the artist began questioning the future of his work and his legacy.
From this soul-searching emerged a new commitment to Japanese history and fresh directions in his work that took on a darker dimension after a 2011 earthquake and tsunami that devastated parts of Japan.
A sweeping example of less widely seen late work is a 33-foot-long, 10-panel painting titled “100 Arhats” (2013), which features an assortment of cartoonish Buddhist-figures. It is rendered with an intricate layering of hundreds of silk screens, a technique that Murakami has honed to obtain the minute intricacy of detail he seeks.
“There is just no one in the world making anything like this,” Darling said, “especially the scale, the detail and the technique. It’s just incredible the amount of labor and planning that goes into something like this.”
Hanging across from it is “Dragon in Clouds – Indigo Blue” (2010), an equally spectacular but more free-flowing painting measuring 59 feet in length. It is based on a historical Japanese work but reimagined on a vastly larger scale.
The final gallery includes two works created specifically for this exhibition. The first is the exhibition’s namesake, “The Octopus Eats Its Own Leg,” a 35-panel, 114-foot-long painting that wraps entirely around the space. The second is a 15-foot-tall, graffiti-splashed sculpture that suggests a water spout. “So, this room is going to be pretty over the top,” Darling said.
Scheduled in the summer to take advantage of the city’s top tourism season, the exhibition is likely to be museum’s biggest draw since its presentation of “David Bowie Is” in 2014-15, which brought 193,000 patrons to the exhibt. Recent Murakami exhibitions have set records at the institutions where they were presented in Oslo and Tokyo.
The MCA makes a point of mixing in blockbuster exhibitions like these with its other presentations of significant yet often less widely recognized artists.
“It’s very conscious,” Darling said. “It’s us really trying to expand the audience and trying to bring in people who maybe wouldn’t come into a contemporary art museum – luring them maybe with a name. But in the case of Bowie or this, there is real serious content that we can feel good about and proud about. We’re not just pandering.”
Kyle MacMillan is a local freelance writer.