Thursday, August 17, 2017

The Octopus Eats Its Own Leg

    You open the world to your children and then, if you are lucky, they open their world to you.
    I was not particularly fond of contemporary art—I'm more of a French Impressionism fan—but then again, I didn't know much about it either, and ignorance and dislike are brothers. 
     I've grown to appreciate it more over the past couple years, and only now, having spent a few hours at the impressive Takashi Murakami show at the Museum of Contemporary Art, did I realize why: my older boy.
     It was he who prompted us to go to The Broad, the new privately-financed Los Angeles mecca of recent art. It was he who, in April, dragged us to the Palazzo Grassi in Venice to see Damien Hirst's massive "Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable."
    And while it wasn't he who took me to the MCA Tuesday to see a retrospective of Japan's top contemporary artist, the show opened in June, I wasn't racing there either, not until my kid came home Saturday from his internship in LA for a couple weeks. Then my first thought was, "Hey, there's a Murakami show at the MCA—wanna go?"
     He did.  
     Rooms filled with enormous canvases that somehow manage to be both freeform and precise, explosions of color and tracts of black and white. Murakami struck me as the apotheosis of high school artists, his blizzard of arhats, stylized Buddhists recalled faces scrawled on the notebooks of artsy fellow students at Berea High School in the late 1970s, dreamy-eyed girls with names like Ariel and Autumn.
     I particularly liked his Yves Klein tribute flower wallpaper—as I thought of it. Something daft and commercial. 
     If you go, make sure you see the films of Murakami overseeing squads of employees—he has some 250 at five studios around the world— slim youths in colorful jumpsuits and paper masks slathering paint over large wood-framed stencils he computer cuts to make his enormous images. And in the middle, pot-bellied, with a scraggly beard, round glasses and earbuds screwed in his ears, the Artist, transferring his images onto paintings that cover museum walls and sell for millions.
     In one room, with huge resin and steel guardian figures on each end, were a pair of paintings that carried the name of the show—The Octopus Eats Its Own Leg, his comment on the resilience of survival. A Japanese saying about regeneration, the extreme step taken to survive, the moral of the story being the octopus grows a new leg to replace what was lost. 
    In tiny letters on these paintings Murakami had a surprisingly anxious, aggrieved personal statement, about the young artists he tried to help and who "betrayed" him and how generally troublesome his life was. 
     I suppose he could be looked down on for that, but as Walt Whitman said, "How beautiful is candor;" somehow that spirit, the self-exposure, endeared Murakami to me—of course it would, since I too am in the self-revelatory line, though with far less remunerative results.
     Still, it's good to know that someone is making a smash success of whimsical self-pity, and curator Michael Darlings cannily convinced Murakami to present his not-all-that-hot early works in the first room of the show, jammed with young people, to whom this should be an inspiration, because he does not come off as a genius, just someone who combined work and luck and a vision and made it. 
     Murakami thinks of his production process as similar to making a movie—"Star Wars" was an inspiration—and coming out of the show indeed had that return-to-reality sense you have after seeing a good movie.
     The show runs until Sept. 24, but go sooner than later, as the MCA might have to go to timed tickets, just to handle the crowds. 


  1. I'm more of an impressionist guy myself and wouldn't go far out of my way to view "modern" art. However, I really like the way the picture at the top of the blog as you look at it changes from a random conglomeration of colors to recognizable images, large and small...and cute.


  2. The "daft and commercial" "flower wallpaper" brings to mind some lyrics from Neil Young's song "Driftin' Back":
    "I used to dig Picasso
    Then the big tech giant came along
    And turned him into wallpaper"

  3. Wallpaper, shower curtains, bank checks, even currency might be considered "art," were they not so familiar and a thousand years from now when binary has obliterated everything, such things may be treasured like Greek statues dredged up from ancient ocean wrecks.


    1. Good point. Old or otherwise unfamiliar currency and coins have artistic merit in the same way that stamps do. Wallpaper? Meh.


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