In the past few decades, Japanese artists have taken the contemporary art world by storm, presenting bold and inventive works that embody Japan’s rich cultural history. They challenge Western traditions and push the boundaries of contemporary art, like Yayoi Kusama and Yoshitomo Nara, whose revolutionary works have attracted international acclaim and commercial success.
Born in 1929 in Matsumoto, Yayoi Kusama is one of the most successful living female artists, best known for her signature polka dots and mirrored infinity rooms. Her style relies on repetitive patterns and vibrant colours and is influenced by Conceptual Art, Pop Art and Abstract Expressionism. She left Japan for New York in 1957, and by 1962, she was exhibiting at the Green Gallery alongside well-established avant-garde artists such as Claes Oldenburg, James Rosenquist and Andy Warhol.
In 1946, the pumpkin first appeared in Kusama’s work when she exhibited in a travelling show in Nagano and Matsumoto, Japan. From then on, she began incorporating pumpkins in her dot-motif paintings, drawings and prints. For instance, a giant black and yellow polka-dotted pumpkin has stood at the end of a pier on Naoshima Island since 1994. It was the first of many examples of public art that Kusama began to display in Japan, France, the United States and Korea.
Kusama explained in a 2015 interview: “I love pumpkins because of their humorous form, warm feeling, and a human-like quality and form. My desire to create works of pumpkins still continues. I have enthusiasm as if I were still a child.”
Another pioneering figure in contemporary art is Yoshitomo Nara, whose work is influenced by childhood memories, popular music and current events. Born in 1959 in Hirosaki, Nara became fascinated with Neo-Expressionism and punk rock while studying at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf in Germany. He first gained recognition in the 1990s during Japan’s Pop Art movement. By 2001, he had become associated with the avant-garde group of Japanese artists known as Superflat, who used bright colours, patterns and cartoon motifs to challenge Japan’s hyper-consumerist culture. The group also included Takashi Murakami and Chiho Aoshima.
Nara is renowned for his works featuring young children appearing simultaneously innocent and enigmatic. His distinct style is introspective, exploring a wide range of feelings, from joy to loneliness to rebellion. Nara adopts a muted colour palette and minimalist approach to present simple subjects whose oversized features reveal complex emotions.
His characters often brandish weapons, like knives or scissors, as shown in this lithograph. Nara once commented on this recurring motif, saying: “Look at them, they are so small, like toys. Do you think they could fight with those? I don’t think so. Rather, I kind of see the children among other, bigger, bad people all around them, who are holding bigger knives.”
Born in Osaka in 1974, MADSAKI is a Jersey-raised contemporary painter who graduated in 1996 from Parsons School of Design in New York before starting to exhibit at galleries in Tokyo, Seoul, Los Angeles and New York. He would eventually return to Japan, becoming one of the most influential Japanese artists after Takashi Murakami invited him to exhibit at Hidari Zingaro in 2016.
Being Japanese-American, MADSAKI straddles two cultural identities often at odds with each other. Despite being a member of the Western art world, he playfully criticizes the canon and believes there should be no distinction between high and low art. He draws inspiration for his acrylic and aerosol paintings from an eclectic mix of sources: Old Masters, popular advertisements and films.
His instantly recognizable subject matter is full of childlike energy and emotions. “Specifically, I am interested in how experience enters memory, and once there, how it’s flattened into a two-dimensional image. Memory makes images feel simultaneously very close and very far,” described the artist in a 2021 interview with L’Officiel Saint Barth.
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