Takashi Murakami, 55, is a Japanese contemporary artist and founder of the “Superflat” art movement. His “Takashi Murakami: Lineage of Eccentrics” exhibit at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts will be on view until April 1. He spoke with Marc Myers.
One day in the early 1980s, when I was attending the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music, a female upperclassman remarked that her boyfriend had a great sense of color and I didn’t. At first I was hurt, but the more I thought about what she said, the more I realized she was right.
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Ever since I started drawing, I favored black-and-white over color. So I began to educate myself about color by studying Johannes Itten’s book “The Art of Color,” among others, as well as watching films.
I grew up in a low-income area of Tokyo. Like most homes in Tokyo, ours was small. It was a free-standing, two-family rental duplex built 30 years earlier.
We had only one room shared by my parents, my younger brother, Yuji, and me. We had a few pieces of furniture that we cleared in the evening and replaced with futons for sleeping.
My father, Fukujuro, drove a cab and my mother, Itsuko, was a homemaker. My parents often took me to see Impressionist exhibits. At home, I would paint pictures in a similar style.
At those exhibits, my parents were excited by the art, but I wasn’t impressed. I didn’t understand it. European culture was foreign to me.
I soon became very interested in anime [Japanese animation] and manga [Japanese graphic novels]. For children of my generation, anime was an escape from Japan’s loser complex following World War II. Anime wasn’t foreign. It was our own.
‘In the late 1990s, I began creating two-dimensional characters in bright colors on flat, glossy surfaces…I began to call it ‘Superflat.’’
I tried to teach myself to draw anime, but I was so bad. To enter the animation industry, I knew I had to become a scenery artist instead.
After I was accepted at the university, I began studying a traditional Japanese-style painting called nihonga. At the time, nihonga was popular and lucrative. But I didn’t get along with my teachers.
By the time I emerged as an artist in 1995, painting had been exhausted. I had to think of a new way to express myself. I thought I should do something with manga.
So in the late 1990s, I began creating two-dimensional characters in bright colors on flat, glossy surfaces. This led to a show at a Santa Monica art gallery in Los Angeles.
To be accepted by New York City’s important art scene, however, I needed to create a new art movement. This required a catchphrase similar to other art movements such as “abstract expressionism” or “pop art.”
The day before my L.A. exhibit opened, a few clients were in the gallery. I overheard the owner describing my work as “super high quality and super shiny on super-flat surfaces.” I realized that this was a way to market my art. When I needed to explain my work, I began to call it “Superflat.”
In 2003, I collaborated with designer
of Louis Vuitton to create a line of bags. I presented more than 200 ideas, and Marc picked my colorful monogram. I used the LV logo and lettering in a vivid, multicolor pattern.
The bags were radically different and became a success. So I began establishing a new grammar for color.
Today, I live in Japan in my studio in Miyoshi, just north of Tokyo. My wife and two children live in a different part of Japan. We communicate using the FaceTime app.
My studio is a gigantic warehouse loft. The studio operates 24 hours a day. I sleep in a separate room, in a small wood-frame box. It is just wide enough to hold my bed. I’m afraid of earthquakes, so I keep the room spare.
My works-in-progress are all around me in the studio. But the only art piece on the wall in my room is a calligraphy I created using a phrase by Rosanjin, a Japanese ceramist who died in 1959: “Renovation of art and beauty.”
As for my childhood, I don’t have anything saved from that period in my life. I’m not really hung up on the past.