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

We sat down with Mr. Murakami in Gagosian Gallery two days before the preview. He has said that the nuking of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 was formative in the development of Superflat. These new pieces were dealing with current nuclear horrors but didn’t seem to contain the pitch darkness that characterized some anime in his work. Superflat seemed superbright.

“Mmmm,” he said, with the resonant mumble that soundtracked the thinking process. “There is brightness. But my real story has a kind of darkness.”

Despite the laughing flowers, it’s not entirely happy, happy, happy?

“Mmmm … Mmmm …”

Mr. Murakami speaks good English but clearly decided it wasn’t up to this. He turned to the woman interpreter at his side, and our interview turned into a collage.

“So this is something that’s been part of me since I began, the relationship between war and art,” he began, speaking through her. “I don’t think the art is just bright. I think that those who were able to enjoy consumer culture and the world of consumerism were in the countries that were victorious in the war. And by the countries that were victorious in the war I mean the U.S. and the British. Societies that lost the war, like Japan, envied the consumerism of the winners but they still wanted at least to be able to borrow what they envied.”

Mr. Murakami’s father drove a cab. “Before I became an artist, when I was a student, I was very active in the antinuclear movement,” he said. “I read quite a bit of writing about art. And I became aware of the impact that art can have. I myself was feeling cynical about Japanese society and looking to express my cynicism. And conceptually I was interested in the work of Hans Haacke, the direction of his art.”

Hans Haacke’s work is a critique, we observed. Was Mr. Murakami’s work critiquing consumer culture?

“Mmmm …. Mmmmm ….” His eyes shut behind his round lenses. “When I began my career I made such things as plastic folders. And also the backpacks that Japanese children use when they go to school. And those were actually modeled after the backpacks that Dutch soldiers have carried. So there was some historical basis. And other facts that are hidden in these works. They were intended to express the gap between those hidden historical facts and the sadness that they reflect. So this was what was in my early works.”

In 1984 Mr. Murakami came to New York on a program sponsored by the alternative art space PS1. Encountering the work of neo-Pop artists like Ashley Bickerton and Jeff Koons rocked his world. He made art on the streets, and lived for a while with the art collective Todt. Tony Guerrero, PS1’s former longtime director of exhibitions and operations, arranged to give Mr. Murakami a show that included a huge assembly of balloons in a crumbling synagogue.

The influence of New York soon made itself felt in his work.

“I expanded it to include some of the characters that you see in my work,” Mr. Murakami said. “Mickey Mouse and the characters from Japanese games. There is the contrast between the cuteness and the cruelty. And the sadness and the cruelty and the cuteness are symbolized by the characters. So this is how my early work began. As an expression of sadness and cruelty.”

Mr. Murakami broke in the teeth of the art slump. Nineteen ninety-one was an important year. “The time that I made my debut was a time of great change in the art world,” he said. “It was the time that Damien Hirst made his debut. And Matthew Barney. I watched what they were doing.”

Superflat made its own debut as the title of the show he curated at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art (LA MoCA), in 2000. Two years later, Hiropon, his sculpture of a girl with giant lactating breasts, fetched $427,500 at Christie’s, New York, and Marc Jacobs signed him to redesign the Louis Vuitton bag—a huge, huge hit.

In 2007, “©Murakami,” a retrospective, opened at LA MoCA, then traveled to Brooklyn, Frankfurt and the Guggenheim in Bilbao. In all these locales it included an operating Louis Vuitton boutique. Three years later, Mr. Murakami watched benignly while My Lonesome Cowboy, his sculpture of a boy waving his ejaculate like a lasso, fetched $15.2 million at Sotheby’s, New York.

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