One of the most acclaimed artists to have emerged from postwar Asia, Murakami Takashi is celebrated for his era-defining oeuvre that merged contemporary pop culture with fine art. First introducing his revolutionary “Superflat” philosophy in the 1990s, Murakami’s works draw on everything from anime and manga to Buddhist forms and iconography to Pop and Abstract Expressionism, while his highly organized production methods fused art and commercial enterprise in a way that took Andy Warhol’s vision to a new level. While trained in the Japanese art of Nihonga, a highly regimented and traditional form of art, Murakami’s wholly unique and contemporary aesthetic moves seamlessly amongst diverse roles as artist, producer, theorist, curator, designer, businessman and celebrity, rendering him an unprecedented phenomenon in the global cultural scene. With his numerous collaborations with luxury brands such as Louis Vuitton, Murakami’s hybridized art not only put Japanese pop culture onto the global map of contemporary art but uses it to reference and embody the overwhelming phenomenon of cultural collisions occurring all over the world.
Executed in 2015, Untitled epitomizes the full depth and complexity of Murakami’s extraordinarily multifaceted corpus. Presenting a sensory psychedelic deluge of intricately rendered stylised skulls, the meticulously executed painting invites a myriad of symbolic associations. Murakami’s fixation on skulls immediately evoke the vanitas – a genre of still-lifes that emerged in 16th and 17th century Holland that illustrate the transience of life and the certainty of death. However, by rendering them in bright Neo-pop colours, Murakami both engages with and subverts the genre with his highly decorative plastic style. From afar, the painting may seem to viewers on first glance like a bed of wild flowers, drawing parallels to Murakami’s other works in analogous series that feature all-over compositions of trademark smiling flowers, whilst also evoking metaphors for the ephemeral fragility of life. The present work also invites associations with Andy Warhol’s Skulls (1976); Warhol’s painting likewise employs bright vivid colours in its depiction of macabre subject matter – a strategy that conflates the notions of beauty and death.
Created in 2015, Untitled was painted during a period in which Murakami was highly preoccupied with themes of death and accordingly broke new ground in his visual vocabulary. Shaken by the earthquake and tsunami in 2011, the artist’s exhibitions during ensuring years, such as In the Land of the Dead, Stepping on the Tail of a Rainbow (2015), expanded on dark themes that have all along been underneath the surface of his colourful pop art, whilst also expanding on themes related to Zen Buddhism, emptiness, unity and infinity. Works from this period are significant because they constitute something of a personal epiphany for Murakami, developed from ongoing spiritual practice. Untitled in particular evokes the Buddhist concept Shogyo mujo, which alludes to the transience of life; as Murakami explains: “The expression Shogyo mujo is very important in Japanese culture, but no one genuinely understands it. After these disasters, people finally understood it in all its brutality” (Takashi Murakami quoted in Massimiliano Gioni, "Takashi Murakami: SUPERFLAT TO SUPERNATURAL", Flash Art International, 45, no. 284, May 2012, p. 52-56).
In line with the exacting standards enforced by the artist’s factor-like studio setup, each individual skull is individually painted by hand with faultless and immaculate precision to deliver computer screen-like perfection. Entrenched in the ancient Eastern practice of decorative painting on traditional lacquered panels, Murakami engenders a new expression for Japanese high-art that encompasses the mythology, craft and skill of Japan’s past with the pervasive and highly commercial visual culture that developed in Japan following the Second World War. Flawlessly executed, combining complex spiritual and traditional themes with social commentary as well as his trademark maverick and mischievous sense of humour, the present painting reveals the superstar artist at the height of his powers whilst also revealing the artist’s profound empathy for humankind. In the artist’s own words: After the earthquake and tsunami natural disasters, I realized that people – in order to get away from such realities – do need religion and stories. So with that in mind, I am now creating stories and characters for pieces” (the artist quoted in “Interview: Takashi Murakami Discusses His New Death-Themed Art Exhibition and His Film Trilogy “Jellyfish Eyes””, complex.com, 12 November 2014).