In the world of art-speak, icon and iconic are words as popular as they are overused. Derived from the ancient Greek word ‘eikon’ meaning, ‘a likeness or image’, its definition has clearly changed over time. That’s not unexpected. But consider how we think of iconic in a contemporary context. Accept that it refers to highly original, influential, or unique works of art and artists that are well-established and widely celebrated in popular culture, and Takashi Murakami just might be the most iconic artist working today. Time magazine thought so. In 2008, it named him one of the hundred most influential people in the world; the only visual artist included on the list.
Of course, if Murakami is under consideration as the world’s most iconic twenty-first century artist, the breadth of that acknowledgement depends on the crowded skeins of colorful smiley-faced daisies plied to everything from cushions, graphic tees and shorts, skateboards and Louis Vuitton tote-bags to multi-million-dollar artworks offered by the most prestigious galleries in the world. Warhol had his detractors. Jeff Koons certainly has them, and the signatures of 12,000 protestors decrying the staging of Murakami’s work at the Versailles Palace in 2010 suggests he was not immune to similar contempt. Yet what a triumph it proved to be; a mash-up clash of decidedly different cultures, of Japanese anime and manga staged amongst stodgy French classical art, cartoonish figures frolicking under the depictions of glowering military heroes on wall of canvases in ornately carved gilt frames.
Devotees of Murakami’s work are well acquainted with its source material — manga story boarding, anime, and Otaku, the subcultural phenomenon of consumers obsessed with these art forms. Then there are the earlier, more traditional forerunners, ukiyo-e woodblock prints with their absence of perspective, their two-dimensionality of ancient Japanese art that would give rise to naming the style of his as ‘superflat’; differentiated from the western approach in its emphasis on surface and flat planes of color. As for the blurring of high art with consumerism, it is one of Murakami’s dearly held tenets that demarcations between fine art and popular merchandise are completely un-Japanese and that any back-and-forth status considerations between museums and department stores as a venue is unnatural in Japanese society.
Murakami might also be the most self-effacing artist today. He boldly claims (though not without an air of puckish irony) that he has no talent and no skill. Nothing could be further from the truth. He is perfectly suited for the time. Take those deliriously happy flowers. They debuted in 1995, proliferated, and became verily ubiquitous. Place them in the context of a circular canvas, and traditional western associations in a work such as Want to Hold You are there to be noted. For one, Tondos, or circular paintings were much in favor by Michelangelo and Rubens during the Renaissance as a symbol of perfection. Want to Hold You also creates the optical sensation of dynamic expansion; an effect well known in the Op Art world, particularly that of Vasarely whose sophisticated use of dimensional vectors upon spherical swelling grids creates the optical illusion of volume. That dynamic is in play here. And lastly, beneath the surface of these seemingly unconditionally happy and joyful flower characterizations there is the suggestion of deeper and darker undertones; hidden tears if one seeks to find them. Under all those iconic smiles, a darker evocation, the collective trauma of the bombings that ‘created layers of oppressed and contradictory emotions. On one hand, a sense of powerlessness played out in cute characters and on the other, a fascination with power and destruction.’ Even in the world of Pop Art, or its postmodern derivative, for the Japanese that experience is never far from the collective psyche.
Takashi Murakami, “Flower Matango”, The Hall of Mirrors, Château de Versailles, 2010 (photo by Cedric Delsaux)
Takashi Murakami, “The Emperor’s New Clothes”, 2005, The Coronation Room, Château de Versailles 2010-11 (photograph by Cedric Delsaux)
Takashi Murakami, “Flower Ball”, Vancouver Art Gallery, 2018
Takashi Murakami, “MURAKAMI vs MURAKAMI”, JC Contemporary, Tai Kwun. (Photography: Alex Maeland)
Louis Vuitton, Tokyo, Japan
- The graph by Art Market Research shows that since 2001, paintings by Murakami have increased at a 17.3% annual rate of return.
- The record price for a Murakami painting at auction was set in 2018 when Dragon in clouds-red mutation (2010) sold for over $8.8 million USD. The highest price for any Murakami at auction is held by the sculpture The Lonesome Cowboy (1998), which sold for over $15 million USD in 2008.
- Murakami’s flowers are among his most recognizable and desirable subject matter. They have appeared in collaborations with Kanye West, Billie Eilish, Louis Vuitton, and many other prominent names in music, media, and fashion.
- The Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago’s retrospective exhibition, Takashi Murakami: The Octopus Eats His Own Leg, 2018, is to date their most attended exhibition, signaling pervasive interest in the artist and his most iconic imagery.
Top Paintings Sold at Auction
Comparable Paintings Sold at Auction
- Comparable flower piece from similar year (two years earlier)
- Sold for over $1.7M in 2012
- The value of Murakami paintings has increased since then at a 17.3% annual rate of return.
- Same subject in tondo format, earlier year
- Sold for over $1.6M nearly 15 years ago
- Same subject in tondo format, in less desirable colors
- Sold for $1.2M ten years ago