The (Art) World Is (Super) Flat: Takashi Murakami on His Art Philosophy and Upcoming Charity Auction

‘My real story has a kind of darkness,’ the neo-Pop master says

Takashi Murakami. (Photo by Noel Vasquez / Getty Images)

On a seasonable morning last week, before the cold snap hit, journalists gathered in the recently added fifth-floor space of Gagosian Gallery for a preview of New Day, the benefit auction for victims of Japan’s Tohoku-Pacific earthquake that will take place at Christie’s later this month. The media folk present, most of whom were on the business-news side of the art world, were offered flutes of Champagne and thimblefuls of cold sake before a walk-around of the 21 donated works. These included pieces by Jeff Koons, Cindy Sherman, Anselm Reyle, Gabriel Orozco and Damien Hirst, as well as Takashi Murakami, Yoshitomo Nara and KAWS, who were present and available for facetime.

Mr. Murakami, top-knotted, dark-suited, wearing round-lensed spectacles and a buttoned-up shirt of blinding whiteness, was, not surprisingly, the focus of attention. He is hugely successful, one of a handful of global über-artists, and the messiah of Superflat, the belief that in Japan meaningful distinctions between High Art and Low have ceased to exist and that paintings, sculptures, posters, toys and artist-embellished designer bags have leveled into one continuum.

Today, though, Mr. Murakami was the center of attention because New Day is his creation and an exemplary display of über-artist heft on a heart-rending occasion. It had been he who had proposed the auction to François Pinault, the French luxury goods magnate and owner of Christie’s, and it had been he who had secured the donations, including the plums, Balloon Monkey Wall Relie (Pink) by Jeff Koons and two Damien Hirsts.

“Jeff said yes immediately,” Mr. Murakami said. “This is a maquette. For the auction it will be a unique piece.” Mr. Hirst’s response, he added, had been equally speedy. “Damien has his own foundation.”

Four of Mr. Murakami’s own pieces were on view at Gagosian, who is his dealer (as well as Mr. Koons’s and Mr. Hirst’s), and Mr. Murakami was standing alongside three of them, two large ones that he worked on with his studio, Kaikai Kiki, and completed by himself, and a smaller one in the center, made by his hand alone.

How long had it taken, The Observer asked him?

Murakami considered. “Two weeks,” he said.

Did he ever show the work he had made himself?

A gleaming smile.

“I did not always have assistants,” he said, and spoke of his early days, when he had painted monochromes, as “an homage to Yves Klein.” Blue, like the late French artist’s signature works? “Pink and blue,” Mr. Murakami said.

At Gagosian, the larger pieces were New day: Kaikai and Kiki, Faces All-Over and New day DOB’s Acrobatic Spectacular: Society. They were brightly colored, gleaming, flat and densely patterned with Mr. Murakami’s logo-equivalent, grinning flower-faces. But there were also other elements: faces looking sick, nauseated, furious, scared. Another piece was painted edge to edge with grinning flowers but featured, dead-center, a large head, top-knotted, eyes shut tight behind round spectacles, red tongue protruding from a yelling mouth. It’s called New Day: Face of the Artist (2011).

These pieces, Mr. Murakami explained, had been painted after the nuclear meltdown. “Every day there was a report about the radiation levels,” he said. “It was super-confusing. The Japanese government was confusing everything.”

There was a time gap between the knowledge of the crack in the containment pit and the extent of the damage.

“Not too much smiling now,” he said.

The obsessions of post-WWII Japan–toy robots, Godzilla movies, schoolgirls, vending machines where you could buy schoolgirls’ used underwear–merged dark fragments of the recent past with dystopian glances at what might lie ahead. William Gibson set Neuromancer in Chiba City, Tokyo. Even little things could be weird. Steely Dan is the name of a Japanese condom. The Observer watched a lot of anime in the ’80s and it was … peculiar. We remember one where a main character was a talking turd.

The (Art) World Is (Super) Flat: Takashi Murakami on His Art Philosophy and Upcoming Charity Auction