Yoshitomo Nara is this year’s TWO x TWO for AIDS and Art honoree, and he is beloved by local institutions, with works by the artist promised to the collection of the Dallas Museum of Art. A recently closed solo exhibition, i forgot their names and often can’t remember their faces but remember their voices well, was on view at the Dallas Contemporary. One of the most internationally renowned artists working in Japan today, for over four decades Nara has been critically acclaimed for his bold portraits of adorable, wide-eyed children, often depicted with an unsettling edge. Poised holding a cigarette or knife and with a glare of defiance, their curious blend of innocence and punk aesthetics became iconic of the spirit of youthful rebellion and childhood anxiety that embodied his generation that grew up in postwar Japan.
After he graduated from Aichi University of the Arts with a master’s degree in 1987, Nara’s artistry developed further during his period in Germany, when he studied in the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf from 1988 to 1993 and settled in Cologne in 1994. During this pivotal moment in his artistic career, he began merging Japanese and Western popular culture into a language distinctly his own, from comic books and animation to vernacular art and devotional sculpture. His work also drew on rock, folk, and punk music; existential philosophies; and spirituality.
While living in Cologne in the mid-1990s, he began depicting his now-signature solitary and fiercely independent figures of children with large heads and eyes boldly portrayed against ambiguous blank backgrounds. In 1995, he had his US debut with this new body of work at Blum & Poe in Los Angeles. After twelve years in Germany, he returned to Japan in 2000. Rising to international prominence during this time, Nara gained more opportunities in Japan and abroad to exhibit his figural drawings, ceramics, and sculpture as well as his paintings. His cartoonish, childlike characters also grew more emotionally complex, ranging from angry and sad to serene.
After the devastating Tohoku earthquake and tsunami in 2011, the tone and expression of Nara’s youthful figures became markedly more introspective and contemplative. The earthquake and tsunami personally affected Nara, since the Fukushima nuclear disaster triggered by the tsunami was near his hometown of Aomori. Being familiar with the landscape as well as knowing the peoples’ loss from the fallout, he visited the ruined site many times. Nara also noted a shift in his artistic process, growing more mindful and deliberate in his artmaking.
To date, Nara has been featured in over 40 solo exhibitions and is collected widely among major museum and private collections in Japan, Europe, and the US. The breadth and depth of his work can be seen in three major recent exhibitions: the eponymous LACMA retrospective, which will travel to Shanghai, Bilbao, and Rotterdam next; the beautiful solo presentation at the Dallas Contemporary; and a special traveling exhibition organized by the Japan-Taiwan Exchange Association and the General Association of Chinese Culture.
Patron called on Tim Blum of Blum & Poe and Yoshitomo Nara to discuss the history of their collaborative relationship through which Nara’s work was introduced to US audiences, the role of art galleries in the current pandemic moment, and a look towards what’s next.
PATRON (P): How would you describe the context in which you both met?
Tim Blum (TB): I first learned of Nara’s work while living in Tokyo, but he actually lived in Germany, so he was not someone I could meet or engage with physically at the time. Sometime later I moved back to Los Angeles and opened Blum & Poe in September 1994. Shortly thereafter I went to Japan and visited Masami Shiraishi at SCAI The Bathhouse, who happened to be installing a Nara show at that moment. Nara happened to be in town, so we met then.
P: What drew you to collaborate in the first place?
TB: When I walked into SCAI The Bathhouse, I remember very vividly one painting that they had leaning on the wall. It was of one of his figures, in a yellow bathtub with blue water, and he—it felt like the figure was a he—was wearing a red, hooded jumpsuit with two instruments in his hands. It was a small painting, probably around 24 x 20 inches, but I was immediately drawn to it. That was my first experience with the work in person, and it has not changed since. The whole experience with Nara is a subconscious, physical experience that I believe relates to one’s own personal story and narrative. Something about his work can universally tap into that part of a person, so your first attraction to the work is not to look at it as a painting in the traditional sense, but you have a more visceral reaction. When I lived in Japan, I learned to trust my instincts, and with Nara’s work I had that feeling right away. We did our first show in Los Angeles in 1995.
P: What was the first exhibition at Blum & Poe like, as well as Nara’s first experience in Los Angeles?
Yoshitomo Nara (YN): Blum & Poe is now a big gallery in California, but at first, they were in a tiny space— like five meters by five meters. Tim had seen my show at SCAI The Bathhouse, and he reached out to me. He saw something in me that wasn’t limited to Japan, something international that went beyond words, and wanted to do something with me. So that first show in America was titled Pacific Babies because I went over the Pacific Ocean. I think that’s where my history as an artist, as perceived by everyone else, started. For the first time I went to a place where I had no footing, a place not in Europe nor in Japan. Because of this, I was able to feel like I could live the rest of my life as an artist on the faraway West Coast—perhaps because there wasn’t as much of the class to establish what constituted mainstream culture, underground, and subculture. Things just danced out in the open. I think that the underground culture gained more and more popularity and became pop culture there. That kind of history of the West Coast has a lot in common with the process of how I became an artist. That was the first place I was able to feel accepted. On the West Coast, art journals gave me coverage even though I was new, and there were other artists in California who liked my work, and I remember being very happy.
P: You both spent time abroad during your formative years: for Tim, the move to Tokyo, and for Nara, Germany. How did you decide to make that move in the first place? How did that experience shape your understanding of the world and what your role might be in it?
TB: I first went to Japan during the summer of 1984. It was just an exploratory trip, but I loved it so much I went back in 1985, focusing mostly on Tokyo. I went in on all that Tokyo still has—architecture, design, art, food, culture, fashion—you name it. It was at an apex with the bubble economy, and there was just a percolation of a great creative and economically prosperous time. I ended up going back permanently in 1989 after graduating from college, and from there I began a long journey of cultural immersion and language absorption. In Tokyo, I did every job under the sun: brokering deals, advising collectors, running a gallery, a private museum, and working towards one mission, which was to discover and show great art. You also have to remember that our experience with Nara in the 1990s, though he is a Japanese artist, was actually in Germany, so that’s a perceptual shift.
YN: I went to Germany in 1988. I came to understand that European traditions are built upon very strong, deep foundations—not just in art, but also in philosophy and music. I didn’t feel overwhelmed by this; it was just the idea that the Western world was a completely different place. The Kunstakademie [Düsseldorf] felt more like an art laboratory than a university, so there was no set curriculum. When I was a student in Japan, I kind of thought that anything that didn’t come from within myself was borrowed so it’s not good to pay too much attention to passing trends. Then I went to Germany and realized I was doing the same things. But this was my expression, and it went over well with my Akademie classmates and friends. I didn’t know the reason for this, but I was able to decide it was okay as it was.
P: You have known Nara now for over 25 years. How would you describe the longevity and trajectory of this relationship?
TB: It feels like we’ve walked through the whole arc of life together. From seeing the work in Tokyo while he was living in Germany, to visiting him in Germany, to doing these seminal exhibitions with him all over the world, we have slowly, step by step, built the gallery in tandem with him. We were growing at the same time and developing at the same pace. As he moved from Germany back to Japan, we moved and expanded, going from Santa Monica to a bigger space in Culver City to our current home. Nara is our generation. To have seen his growth as an artist from the very first time until now is an experience in and of itself.
P: How has your perspective on the art world changed in the last 5, 10, 20 years? How do you think the gallery has evolved? How has Nara’s work evolved?
TB: The art world is obviously now a very different time than it was when we first started the gallery, but the one constant is that what we do has always been in service of the artist. We’ve been fortunate to work with a great group of artists, and to have kept working with the same core group since the beginning. We had a vision, which was to be a self-sustaining business, running the best galleries in the best environments with the best staff, in service of the artists. When it works it is a mutually beneficial system at the highest level. As for Nara, to have witnessed firsthand the full evolution of his work has been incredibly rewarding. If you go to LACMA, where he has a career survey on view, you can see the paintings starting with the earliest work to the most recent painting, which was made during the quarantine period—the work is incredibly different but always hits with the same emotional impact.
P: Nara, there are some pivotal moments in your life that have impacted your approach to making art. For example, in interviews you have described the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami of 2011 as key moments that shifted your practice in a major way.
YN: After the East Japan earthquake, I grew a lot as a human being, and I think this was significant. I was able to reexamine my own background and feelings towards the region, and it led to a chance for me to take the ideas and desires and all kinds of things swirling around me and consolidate them into one. It has nothing to do with creating, but since I’m the original source of all of my work, in that sense, I think this had an influence on my art as well.
P: The last few years have been extremely challenging for the world, specifically the last year and a half, with the pandemic upending everyone’s sense of normalcy. What is the role of art during times of distress, instability, turmoil? Nara, what do you want your art to communicate?
TB: It turns out that for us, art is as important as medicine. It’s not a cure-all, but it’s a curative. That was one of the ironic downsides to the pandemic—Nara had this major retrospective that was installed at the beginning of COVID and sat at the museum unseen during this very uncertain time. It was frustrating to wonder why people couldn’t go through a museum to see an exhibition safely. But now that it’s open and people can see it, you hear stories about how the show has really transcended the self and this very difficult time we’re in. There is a time and a place for all kinds of work as long as it’s great work, but in speaking about Nara’s work, there really is nothing like it. It just gives so much on so many levels, but it does require the viewer to be open and vulnerable to it. It gives you as much as you give it, and that’s why it’s so special. I always say that Nara is the great leveler. I don’t care how tight or dry or intellectual somebody might be, I have seen the work transform the hardest of people because it cracks the surface. All ages, all walks of life—they have individual experiences, but they are all similar in that regard. That is eminently rare.
YN: It would have to be simply the fundamental emotions that all humans possess. In times of a natural disaster when there’s no electricity, what do people think in that situation? How do people feel about someone close to them who hasn’t come home yet from being away? What feelings do people experience when they are removed from society, in a place where there’s no telecommunications? Painting as a communication tool was born when I was one-on-one with myself, and my hope is that it can become an expression that connects with people in the future. I hope that my work can possess universality and communicate beauty and emotions outside of historical references instead of being categorized in a systematically organized history. I believe that no matter how much nature is lost, there is something internal that is unchanging.
P: With so many major exhibitions of your work on view at the same time, it is amazing to see the breadth and depth of the work you have made and continue to make. For example, the retrospective at LACMA which will travel to Asia next is completely different from the show that recently closed at the Dallas Contemporary, both of which are different from the traveling exhibition Yoshitomo Nara Special Exhibition organized by the Japan-Taiwan Exchange Association and the General Association of Chinese Culture currently on tour in Taiwan. How do you make the decision to take these projects on all at once? Moving forward, what kinds of projects are you most interested in doing?
YN: The main difference that sets the LACMA exhibition apart from the Dallas and Taiwan shows is that it’s formatted as a retrospective. The process of how my style was born and established can be easily understood through the large body of drawings, which includes sketches. In addition to paintings, three-dimensional works created from diverse materials are also shown. It’s a retrospective, but my latest pieces are also exhibited at the end. It is also my expression of commitment, to living in this present world with certainty and creating new works.
In contrast to the comprehensive nature of the LACMA show, the Dallas exhibition showed primarily large-scale works, roughly painted on panels of corrugated board and wood, along with my newest bronze sculptures. I was invited to create the exhibition in Taiwan to commemorate the friendship between our two nations, as well as the 10-year anniversary of the Great East Japan Earthquake, during which Taiwan donated generously. For me, both the Taiwan and Dallas shows could be thought of as additional rooms at the LACMA exhibition. Meaning that they could be extensions of the LACMA retrospective because I am always standing atop the many layers of myself that I’ve created from the past into the present. It would be great to keep creating retrospectives at a museum scale, where visitors can see these layers from a bird’s-eye view, and I can keep adding new works. That said, my current interest is in visiting small regional communities, and situating myself in a creative life that is different from the centralized art scene, more like a family.
P: Looking forward, what is your outlook on the post-pandemic world (whenever that may be), and how the gallery’s program might shift and change accordingly?
TB: We’ll continue to do the same thing: show work that reflects the world we’re in, show work that reflects the world we’ve come out of. Intersect the past and the present and hope that all this can indicate a better path for the future.