NEW YORK - In case you didn’t notice, 2012 was the year for Japanese postwar art. Exhibitions were organised across the US, Europe and Japan, starting with Yayoi Kusama’s massive retrospective at Tate Modern in London, which travelled to Madrid, Paris and New York. A couple months later, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art showcased Daido Moriyama’s groundbreaking photographs of the streets of postwar Japan. London also saw the Serpentine Gallery hand over their space to Yoko Ono.

Yayoi Kusama partnered with Louis Vuitton to design a signature polka-dotted collection. PHILIPPE LOPEZ/AFP/GettyImages.

Over the summer, the Dallas Museum of Art displayed their latest acquisitions of antimodernist group Mono-ha, while in Tokyo, the National Art Center mounted a major exhibition of the Gutai Art Association, the radical collective that broke barriers in the 1960s and 1970s (Gutai is also the subject of the Guggenheim Museum’s current exhibition). Capping off the year, the Museum of Modern Art in New York organised “Tokyo 1955-1970: A New Avant-Garde” and published a major resource, From Postwar to Postmodern Art in Japan 1945–1989: Primary Documents.

Nakamura Hiroshi’s Circular Train A (Telescope Train). © Nakamura Hiroshi, courtesy Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo.

Commercial galleries also added to the mix. Los Angeles-based Blum and Poe, who represent Takashi Murakami and Yoshitomo Nara, the biggest stars of the “Neo Pop” movement, mounted a museum-style exhibition of Mono-ha that later toured to New York’s Gladstone Gallery. Two other Manhattan galleries each presented jewel box shows: Hauser & Wirth displayed a curated selection of Gutai, while long-time Japanese promoter McCaffrey Fine Art staged three back-to-back solo exhibitions for senior artists Sadamasa Motonaga, Noriyuki Haraguchi and Tomoharu Murakami.

What galvanised the renewed interest in Japanese modern art? Doryun Chong, the MoMA curator who organised “Tokyo 1955-1970,” points to two factors: a gradual but discernible increase in the number of museum shows around the world since the 1980s and the rise of a new generation of scholars and curators, of whom Chong is one.

Japanese Neo Pop star Takashi Murakami. ©The New York Times. Photo by Raphael GAILLARDE/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images. 

Internationally, three Japanese artists have garnered a huge amount of attention since the 1980s: Takashi Murakami, Yoshitomo Nara and Yayoi Kusama.  Alexandra Munroe, a pioneer in promoting modern Japanese art who now heads the Asian art programme at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, gave Kusama her first US retrospective in 1989 and in 1994 mounted the milestone exhibition “Japanese Art After 1945: Scream Against the Sky” at New York’s Japan Society. In a panel discussion on Japanese postwar art at Art Basel Miami Beach last December, Munroe recalled that the entire value of all the artworks in the groundbreaking Kusama exhibition was less than $100,000. Munroe’s show included seminal paintings from the Infinity Net series, some of which have recently fetched prices in the $6 million range at auction. In 2012, Louis Vuitton was the lead sponsor of Kusama’s retrospective at Tate Modern, and the fashion house also invited her to collaborate on their popular artist-driven line of fashion and handbags. When asked about their support for Kusama, creative director Marc Jacobs replied, “I was told that Louis Vuitton would be sponsoring a brilliant show by Yayoi Kusama, which will tour several countries, and that they would very much like me to do a collaboration with her. Of course, as I love her work and as I did have a personal connection with her in Tokyo, I was very excited by the idea.” It seems Kusama’s work has come a long way since the late 1980s.

Despite the tremendous range in postwar Japanese art, the international market has focused most of its attention on the artists who emerged from the economic boom that climaxed and collapsed in the 1980s. The main artistic figures of this generation form the “Neo Pop” movement – a term first coined by Japanese art critic Noi Sawaragi in 1992, referencing Japanese subculture obsessions such as manga, anime and fantasy – were Murakami, Nara and to a lesser degree Makoto Aida, who remains more of a domestic favourite. Mika Yoshitake, now the assistant curator of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, wrote in the © Murakami exhibition catalogue in 2007, “One might understand Neo Pop’s particular strategy against the historical backdrop of Japan’s own relational pairing with the West.” However, aside from historical aspirations to be on par with the West, one could say the affinity shared between artists such as Nara, Murakami and Aida relies more on the Japanese geek subculture they tapped into – people with obsessional interests in manga, anime and sci-fi, dubbed otaku in Japanese.

Takashi Murakami’s 2010 retrospective at the Palace of Versailles. ©Takashi Murakami.

Murakami, one of the most controversial and unapologetically commercial figures in the art world today, is known for pushing the limits of formalist practice with his invention of anime-inspired characters such as Mr DOB, who has a vague resemblance to Mickey Mouse. Although Murakami is armed with a PhD in Nihonga, or modern Japanese ink painting, his paintings and sculptures have been reproduced in innumerable variations of colour, patterns and media, recalling Japanese mass-market toy figurines and comics. He was one of the first artists to be embraced by Louis Vuitton, designing for the French brand a set of handbags and accessories, which some critics in the art world derided. In 2007, New York critic Jerry Saltz declared, “The best that can be said about Murakami’s new work is that he’s making pretty money. Or pretty empty money.” This did not stop Murakami. He continued making big, flamboyant art – including filling a massive 2010 retrospective, which was scandalous to many, and particularly the French, in the gilded halls of Versailles and a monumental exhibition and commission for the Qatar Museums Authority in Doha last February – while running his highly successful art production company Kaikai Kiki.

Yoshitomo Nara, in particular, has found appeal across generations, old and young, of otaku in Japan for his representations of disenfranchised children and adolescents. Exhibiting as early as the 1980s, his drawings, paintings and sculptures of doe-eyed children and dogs have earned him rock-star status and his work is coveted in Asia, Europe and the US. Nara’s dreamy, cartoonish rebels tap into the vulnerabilities and fantasies of childhood, and sometimes lurk on the dark side. Young girls rock out on guitars with angst-ridden slogans painted on the canvas, such as “Rock ’n Roll can never will Die!” These irresistible yet demonic characters, which appeal to tastes high, low and kitsch, have become his trademark, and appear not only in his artforms, but on t-shirts, ashtrays, notebooks and alarm clocks.

Visitors admire Nara’s The Little Pilgrims. Photo courtesy of Yoshitomo Nara. ©Yoshitomo Nara.

Aida, who when compared to Murakami and Nara is considered an “outsider” artist, with a dedicated cult following in Japan, makes a range of work, from manga styled paintings of “Harakiri School Girls” disemboweling themselves with a samurai sword to videos of the artist clownishly impersonating a drunken Osama bin Laden. When speaking about the public’s response to his first Japanese retrospective, “Makoto Aida: Monument for Nothing” at the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo, curator Mami Kataoka reflected, “Aida has been pointing out the complexities of Japanese society for 20 years and since the [2011 Tohoku] Earthquake and Tsunami, followed by the nuclear catastrophe, the general public is finally starting to understand his work.” Ashley Rawlings, a scholar of postwar Japanese art, and more recently a Tokyo director of Blum & Poe, agrees with Kataoka’s assessment, “The origins of Gutai can broadly be thought of as a reaction to the near apocalyptic sense of loss suffered during World War II. If there is any kind of trend I can see among artists who developed their work during the past 30 years, it’s that some are responding to a sense of endemic malaise from the realisation that all is not well with contemporary Japan.”

While Japan has been modernising since the country opened up to foreign influences in the late 19th century, the country’s modern renaissance only began to take shape after 1945. The years 1955 to 1970 saw a remarkable burst of creativity and in just two decades, Japan had lifted itself out of its wartime ruins to become the second largest economy in the world. It was during this incredible transformation that avant-garde artists, architects and musicians thrived.

Makoto Aida, one of the preeminent figures in Japanese contemporary art. Photo by David Gray/Reuter.

Japan’s growth into a major economy by the mid-1960s also meant it was more active on the world stage. It was during this period that Pop Art and mass media, including manga comics, grew pervasive and increasingly influential on the art of the period. Among the artists who fused traditional painting and popular media were Nakamura Hiroshi, Tateishi Kochi (Tiger Tateishi) and Yokoo Tadanori. One of the earliest examples of manga-influenced subject matter is Hiroshi’s 1968 painting Circular Train A (Telescope Train), featuring teenage girls in sailor-style school uniforms and pigtails – an early precursor to the work of contemporary Japanese Neo-Pop artists. Speaking about the influence of these postwar painters on the younger generation active from the 1990s, Doryun Chong remarks, “If you look at the work of Tiger Tateishi and Nakamura Hiroshi you cannot but think of artists such as Murakami and Aida.” Another forerunner of today’s Neo Pop stars of the 1990s is the artist and designer Yokoo Tadanori. Yokoo’s iconic 1960s posters combined striking colour palettes with photography and iconography from both traditional and low-brow culture. He soon became a cult figure, commissioned by corporations to produce artwork for their marketing campaigns.

The final factor in the popularity and profile of the Japanese artists is also the market. Rawlings observes, “From a commercial perspective, major works by mid-20th-century American and European artists are harder and more expensive to come by. So collectors in the US and Europe are beginning to look further afield.” With the exception of Nara and Murakami, historically significant works by postwar Japanese artists are relatively affordable (prices range from $50,000 to $1 million) when compared to their contemporaries in the US or Europe. For those looking to acquire art with a rich and complex history – a history that is only coming to light today – Japan seems the obvious choice.

[This article originally appeared in Sotheby's at Auction. To subscribe click here.]