Los AngelesThe Broad
Stepping on the Tail of a Rainbow
May 21–September 25, 2022
Speaking with David Sylvester more than sixty years ago, Willem de Kooning made one of his most lasting claims: “Content, if you want to say, is a glimpse of something, an encounter, you know, like a flash—it’s very tiny, very tiny, content.” As an unapologetic modernist, among other things like being a master technician, de Kooning struggled and ultimately triumphed as a creator and manipulator of form, resulting in shapes in his work that continue to loom large no matter their actual (pictorial) size. The modernists whose work has stuck with us are those that built, let’s say, a universe.
At first glance, it would seem that Takashi Murakami’s recent work proves that content is actually huge, even gargantuan. Not only is the 2014 painting from which this exhibition borrows its title more than eighty feet long, it is also populated by a number of outsized deities based upon—as we learn from curator Ed Schad’s important catalogue essay—the “Immortals,” hybrid creatures (half carp, half dragon, for example) from the Daoist spiritual tradition in China. It is a visually vibrant and overwhelming painting packed with point-by-point specificity and historical/philosophical heft. Split between deluge on the left, calm on the right, the painting is somewhat reined in by the first half of its title, In the Land of the Dead, but what really holds it together is the control of the painterly production itself, a way of making that demonstrates Murakami’s understanding of how form functions today. His early adoption of, for example, Bézier curve computer programs that enabled imagery to be infinitely scalable without losing resolution (or, again, form) continues to pay off, even in the work that seems at first to be thoroughly superficial (the “flower” paintings, like Shangri-La Blue/Shangri-La Pink , included here).
In his essay Schad invokes the Metaverse, partially because of Murakami’s venture into augmented realities (in this exhibition they ranged from his smiling flowers to demon-like guardians, all magically appearing on the screen of a—still necessary for now—mobile device) but possibly also because of the self-referential connotations of that prefix. Murakami has been pretty meta himself for some time. In the past I’ve suggested that he was like a mash-up of Georges Seurat and Félix Fénéon: maker, historian, critic, promoter; hell, add butcher, baker, candlestick maker to the mix (and there is evidence to support baker). I think it is the combination of Murakami’s many well-established “hats” with his nuanced understanding of scalability of form that separates him and his work from the comparative wasteland of what is known now as content creation bereft of almost all consideration of, and struggle with, form.
We are awash in a world of de Kooning’s glimpses, but few are doing anything with them, content to let us scroll or click past all of them. (And some of them might actually be important!) Murakami has never relented from giving his work what it needs to stay, and stay for a long time. He has, to be clear, upped the ante of this dramatically over the past few years, especially since the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami. No one today needs to have explained to them why a substantial artist from Japan is ideally positioned to take on the relationship between form and content at almost any point in history (whether in visual or spiritual terms), and with his most recent work Murakami has laid claim to being the artist of our time to address our time.
I did, in the end, find myself surprised and then even reassured by the inclusion of a new painting in the exhibition: Unfamiliar People (2022). Presented at the end of the long room containing the eighty-foot behemoth, it more than held its own while suggesting even more poignancy to come in Murakami’s work. Re-forming the hybridity of many of the characters found across the entire expanse of his work, the merging of what could be everyday beings with the forms of some of his creatures embodies not only what Murakami has been saying lately about the impact of living during a pandemic but also pushes against any assumptions that he is not equipped to take on the everyday, if not the mundane, places where de Kooning found so much in those glimpses. I remain especially taken by the figure on the right with what I’ll call his “multiversal” worlds-within-worlds head atop a body wearing a blue suit, yellow tie, brown paints, and green rain boots. He may be unfamiliar, but I think I might know him already.