Large exhibitions require a strong first room, in the same way an essay needs an engaging opening paragraph — both frame the way we think about what we see and read. To wit, the Takashi Murakami retrospective at the Brooklyn Museum might have done better with the more than 90 works on view had the entry point of the show been better put together. With an initial explosion of Vuitton logos on canvas, jellyfish screens, slick commercial animations and transformer anime characters, the context given to the work certainly runs closer to commerce than it does fine art. Not that I have a problem with the pop culture aspect of the work, it just seems an awful onus on the viewer to then have to pick out from the exhibition the fine art tradition that also informs his art. Of course, Murakami will tell you Japanese culture sees these distinctions less than Westerners, that they aren’t actually that important. He may be right, but that doesn’t erase the purpose of a museum: to highlight the creative practices inherent to fine art.
Those familiar with Murakami’s art will undoubtedly have seen or read about the inspiration he draws from Japanese Otaku cartoon forms, in addition to many Western fine art figures. At various points in the exhibition, the debt he owes to each of these cultural forms and figures reveals itself overtly; standouts include the sparkling Vuitton logo-heavy painting Eye Love Superflat, evocative of Andy Warhol’s diamond dust paintings, along with his manga-esque collectible toy figures, which call to mind Marcel Duchamp’s green box filled with miniature replicas of his work. While you can’t begrudge the artist for drawing upon these sources, appropriation and homage has become so commonplace among artists that it fails to engage viewers in the way it once did.
The real value in Murakami’s work lies almost wholly in his innovation of form. Much like Hayao Miyazaki’s 2001 animated film Spirited Away, figures and objects mutate into unusual characters, and, in the case of Murakami, often with deeply erotic undertones. Undoubtedly the highlight of the exhibition appears in a room nearby the attractive yet relatively banal Louis Vuitton boutique: this wallpapered gallery, with Murakami’s trademark smiling flowers, floral paintings on tondo-shaped canvases, and a freestanding bouquet in which multicolored daisies thrust into the room, blurs the difference between the art objects and the architectural forms they’re situated within. This, much more than any synergy among art, pop culture and commerce, is where the real innovation lies.