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Paul Schimmel removes the odd stray hair from a canvas and straightens out misaligned panels as he leads me, room by room, piece by piece through the half-installed “© Murakami” exhibition at the Geffen Contemporary in Little Tokyo. Schimmel is in his 40s and has kind eyes and droopy jowls that sit well with his youthful spirit. He’s unassuming and sweet, a posture that almost seems incongruous with his stature as chief curator of a little L.A. art outfit called MOCA.
He’s also really excited. It’s the first tour of the Takashi Murakami retrospective, which opens Monday, October 29, that Schimmel’s given. The museum has denied press previews until now. As he guides me through, Schimmel notes adjustments that need to be made, support structures to switch out — endless details to worry about — all while a cacophony of clanking hammers and whirring power tools fills the background with white noise as MOCA staffers wearing laminated badges and the unmistakable sheen of exhaustion unpack shipping crates and erect plinths. It’s my most dazzling art high yet, trumping the time I sat next to Robert Graham at a dinner party and, bored, he sculpted a pair of bunny slippers out of my crème brûlée.
We start off in a room of otaku-inspired sculptures, hypersexed, nude and disproportionate. A smiling anime hero spurts forth an impressive lasso of ejaculate, which levitates over his head in a masterful feat of physics. I encircle his counterpart, the busty, blue-haired Hiropon, who beams beneath a jump rope of her own cascade of breast milk.
“She has no vagina,” I point out.
“You’ve got good eyes, kiddo,” says Schimmel, as though no one’s ever noticed Hiropon’s missing labia.
Schimmel patiently grounds the strangely innocent-yet-pornographic work with a litany of traditional references and fine-art lingo, comparing the cum shot continuum of Cream — a two-dimensional rendering of our anime hero’s copious seed stream splattered across several canvas panels — to “a New York school gestural painting,” and pointing out that the squashed elephant at the base of Murakami’s towering Oval Buddha is “really based on classical 12th-century Kyoto-style sculpture.” And while he’s got the art-speak down, what really strikes me is his enthusiasm.
“I’m more excited than you are,” he says, leading me into the next room.
Takashi Murakami is the most influential contemporary artist on the planet. His fine art is not only found in galleries and museums around the world, it’s also emblazoned across skateboards, album covers and most of Tokyo, and mass produced as collectible toys, clothing and stationery. If you don’t frequent galleries, Japan or Giant Robot, you’re still not going to escape his imagery, which decorates all those Louis Vuitton handbags that starlets in trashy celebrity rags brandished from their bony elbows a few years back — you know, the ones with the candy-colored Ls and Vs and the sea of swirly eyeballs that went for like five thousand bucks a pop (and 50 on Santee Alley). You’ve seen his work even if you didn’t know it. It’s everywhere.
Murakami’s original paintings bring in hundreds of thousands of dollars each, and his mass-produced art products sell by the millions. He doesn’t just toe the line between art and commerce; he’s built an empire upon it. Though easily reduced by some (and you know who you are) as just “more of that Japanese cartoon crap,” what with the vapid smiling daisies and ubiquitous neon mushrooms, there’s too much behind his work to dismiss it with a superficial flick of the wrist — too much schooling and too many degrees, too much theory, too much thought, too many “posts” and “isms” around all those damn mushrooms.
What’s with the mushrooms?
I ask Tim Blum and Jeff Poe, partners in the Blum & Poe gallery, and Murakami’s L.A. gallerists since 1996. Blum, of the curly dark hair, the high cheekbones and the well-maintained red-flecked face scruff, leans back into a lint-sprinkled foam couch in the back room of their minimalist Culver City gallery, which also represents Yoshitomo Nara and Murakami protégée Chiho Aoshima. Poe joins us later (his dog was sick). He wears earth tones and a furrowed brow (his dog was sick) and reminds me of a bear — more teddy than grizzly, but less trusting and more art savvy.
“I don’t know, what do you think his mushroom obsession is?” Blum hollers to Poe, who sits behind his desk, half listening.
“It comes from the fact that he can draw mushrooms very well,” Poe says in all seriousness, rolling his desk chair closer to the couch. “He’s very confident at drawing mushrooms.”
Blum befriended Murakami immediately after seeing the artist’s seminal first show at a tiny Ginza gallery in 1991 where he debuted his notorious signboards (which, befitting any retrospective worth its prefix, are on display here). Then a doctoral candidate studying traditional Japanese art, Murakami co-opted toy manufacturer Tamiya’s corporate logo and rebranded it with his own name, Takashi, emblazoned above the company’s slogan: “First in quality around the world.”
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