Yoshitomo Nara Paints What He Hears
By: Nick Marino
Growing up in the far northern reaches of Honshu, Japan’s largest island, Yoshitomo Nara discovered the outside world through his ears. This was many years before he’d leave to study painting at the prestigious Kunstakademie Düsseldorf in the late ’80s, and decades before Sotheby’s would sell his work “Knife Behind Back" (2000) for $25 million in 2019. Back then, in the 1960s and ’70s, he was a latchkey kid who whiled away the afternoons playing in an abandoned ammunition depot on a former Japanese Imperial Army site. At night, he’d listen obsessively, either using the family radio or one he’d built himself at age 8, to the Far East Network, an American station that served the area with news and tunes. Over these airwaves, he found Western music. Folk music. Rock music. He heard voices in a strange foreign language — English — and because he couldn’t understand the lyrics, these voices became just another sound alongside the guitars. And so he became an improbable, insatiable witness to Western pop’s evolution from the flower-child bliss of the mid-60s to the ecstatic thrash of late ’70s punk.
As he collected records (his first single in English was 1967’s “Massachusetts,” by the Bee Gees), he scrutinized the album jackets, which he considered wondrous artworks. He adored the cover of Joni Mitchell’s “Song to a Seagull” (1968), which he was pleased to learn she’d painted herself, and how the jacket of Luke Gibson’s “Another Perfect Day” (1971) appeared to be embroidered with wildflowers. These combinations of sounds and visuals trained Nara’s imagination and foreshadowed the time when, as a grown man and cultural figure in his own right, he’d provide cover art for bands including Shonen Knife, R.E.M. and Bloodthirsty Butchers.
Nara developed his signature style in the 1990s, during art school, when he began painting what a new Phaidon monograph calls “those big-headed girls.” Rendered in acrylic with cartoonish proportions, these cherubic figures seemed, at first glance, indebted to both American twee and Japanese kawaii but were far from innocents. With their slit mouths and saucer eyes, their faces radiated exquisite ambivalence. “People refer to them as portraits of girls or children,” says the curator Mika Yoshitake, an expert on postwar Japanese art. “But they’re really all, I think, self-portraits.”
By the time of Nara’s breakthrough 1995 show, “In the Deepest Puddle,” at Scai the Bathhouse gallery in Tokyo, these imaginary characters had cemented their place as his muses. Over the next two decades, he would paint them time and again, often against solid milky backgrounds on canvasses five feet high or more. Other times, in pencil, he’d transmogrify them into Joey or Dee Dee Ramone with the exuberance of a teenager drawing on his jeans. Nara’s imps lived rich musical lives, too: They bashed drums and throttled microphone stands. And even when they weren’t literal punks (though they often were), they had a punk-rock attitude. They came off as gremlin Kewpies, often wielding a disturbing totem — a saw, a pistol, an unlit match — while wearing a baby-doll dress or pageboy haircut.
Many of them will be present in a major new retrospective at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (scheduled for as soon as the institution can reopen to visitors), which will bring together more than 100 of the artist’s works from the past 36 years, with an emphasis on pieces inspired by music. “It’s sort of a class reunion,” says Nara, who is now 60. “It’s not my children having a reunion. It’s more like my grandchildren.” In addition to his paintings and drawings — and a 26-foot painted bronze sculpture of a girl whose head sprouts into a towering evergreen that will stand outside the museum on Wilshire Boulevard — the exhibit, curated by Yoshitake, will also include several hundred vinyl album covers from Nara’s personal collection. A limited edition of the exhibition catalog will come with a custom vinyl record, featuring six tracks (five covers and an original) by the stalwart American indie band and Nara favorite Yo La Tengo, and a B-side of vintage folk songs from artists including Karen Dalton and Donovan. While the show could be seen as an example of music and art coming together, for Nara, the two were never apart. “When I’m working on drawings,” he says, “music just comes into my ear and goes straight out of my hand.”
Today, Nara lives 300 miles south of his childhood home, in the mountainous countryside of Tochigi Prefecture, and works in an airy, white-walled home studio filled with toy figurines and cat-shaped clocks with dangling pendulum tails. Speaking in Japanese, via a translator, from the Tokyo office of his gallery, Blum & Poe, he answered T’s Artist Questionnaire.
What’s your day like? How much do you sleep, and what’s your work schedule?
In my daily life, I don’t have to interact with people. So, my schedule is all over the place. For example, yesterday I woke up at midnight. But on a regular day, I do sleep between eight and 10 hours.
How many hours of creative work do you think you do in a day?
If it’s a good day, I might work from the moment I get up all the way until the time I go to sleep. I’ll spend a whole day in the studio. And there are some days where I don’t do any work at all, and I just go on a walk or read a book.
What’s the first piece of art you ever made?
When I was 6 years old, I made an illustrated kamishibai story about my cat and me traveling together to the North Pole, and then going all the way down to the South Pole.
What’s the worst studio you ever had?
When I was young, my studios were really terrible — but I enjoyed all of them. For example, when I was in Germany, I had a studio where I had no shower. But I just went to the pool all the time and I washed my hair there.
What’s the first work you ever sold? For how much?
When I was 24 years old, I had a show in a very, very small space, and it had a painting of mine that’s about the size of a record jacket. I sold it for about 2,000 yen, which is basically 20 bucks.
When you start a new piece, where do you begin?
It’s really different each time. The inspiration might be the shape of a cloud or a piece of music or a scene from a movie.
How do you know when you’re done?
It varies each time as well. But when I’m happy with it, it’s done. I don’t worry about or think about what other people might see.
How many assistants do you have?
Just one: me, myself. So I can totally slack off. I feel like if I had assistants, I’d feel pressure to always be working.
What music do you play when you’re making art?
Whenever I don’t know what to turn to, I usually go back to Bob Dylan or Neil Young.
When did you first feel comfortable saying you’re a professional artist?
When I graduated from the Kunstakademie. Up until then, when I would check in at a hotel and have to register my profession, I would always write “student.” But after I graduated, I could no longer write “student.” And so I thought, “OK, well, I guess I have to write ‘artist.’”
Is there a meal you eat on repeat when you’re working?
When I lived in Germany, it was Haribo gummy bears. But when I moved back to Japan, it became chocolate.
Are you bingeing on any shows right now?
Netflix’s recent remake of “Anne of Green Gables,” called “Anne With an E.” They do an incredible job with the historical re-creation that really gives you a good sense of what life was like at the time, in that place, and what the people were like. I enjoy that they’ve found a way to weave in issues that are relevant to today, like issues facing Indigenous people and the Black community in that world. It really addresses all kinds of interesting things, and should be watched by children and adults alike.
What’s the weirdest object in your studio?
I don’t think anything in my studio is weird at all. But visitors, when they come by, apparently find some things odd. They will ask, “Why do you have all of these strange dolls everywhere?”
How often do you talk to other artists?
I very rarely meet with other artists. Artists tend to only want to talk about art. I’d rather talk to people with other interests: people who love movies, or people who love to read, or people who are in professions completely different from mine. People who work as fishermen, people who work as hunters, people who work in forestry.
What’s the last thing that made you cry?
“Anne With an E.” When I was younger, I rarely cried. But as I’ve gotten older, sometimes just the smallest things are enough to set me off.
If you have windows, what do they look out on?
Mountains, forests and grassland. No people.
What do you pay for rent?
I don’t pay rent. I built this studio myself.
What do you bulk buy with most frequency?
Probably chocolate. The brand is called People Tree. I actually once put a picture of the chocolate on my Twitter, and then the company sent me a bunch — so now I don’t have to buy it.