The Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) presents Yoshitomo Nara, the first international retrospective of artist Yoshitomo Nara. The exhibition surveys more than 30 years of the artist’s work—from 1984 to 2020—through the lens of his longtime passion for music. Known for his portraits, Nara’s subjects are vaguely ominous-looking characters with penetrating gazes that occasionally wield objects such as knives or cigarettes, as well as heads and figures that float in dreamy landscapes. Nara’s oeuvre reflects the artist’s raw encounters with his inner self, taking inspiration from memories of his childhood; music; literature; studying and living in Germany (1988–2000); exploring his roots in Asia; and modern art from Europe and Japan. Yoshitomo Nara comprises more than 100 major works, including paintings, drawings, sculpture, ceramics, an installation that recreates his drawing studio, and never-before-exhibited idea sketches that reflect the artist’s empathic eye. One of the exhibition highlights is Miss Forest, a 26-foot outdoor painted bronze sculpture installed on Wilshire Boulevard, which was recently acquired by LACMA thanks to the generosity of an anonymous donor.
“Yoshitomo Nara is among the most important Japanese artists of his generation, and one of the most recognized artists working today. We are excited to be organizing this international retrospective,” said Michael Govan, LACMA CEO and Wallis Annenberg Director. “Nara’s art reflects his interest in art and culture of both past and present. His interest in art history—ranging from 12th-century Japanese Buddhist sculptures and handscroll paintings, Italian early-Renaissance painters, and other European modern influences—mirrors LACMA’s encyclopedic nature. Referencing contemporary music and album covers, Nara possesses the unique ability to capture a complexity of emotions that reflects the cultural psyche of the current generation.”
Exhibition curator Mika Yoshitake stated, “Music has been a passion for Nara since he began to listen to folk songs at age nine, and his relationship with music, namely with album cover art, provided him with an unconventional introduction to art history and artistic genres. This passion is seen through Nara’s vast record collection, selections of which visitors will see as soon as they enter this exhibition. Through these selections and the works inspired by them, the exhibition will bring new light to Nara’s conceptual process.”
Nara’s love of music ended up providing him with an unorthodox art education: the images on record covers not only became signifiers for music but also introduced him to a vast array of artistic genres, with covers and their corresponding music merging in his subconscious. For the young Nara, growing up in Japan among the shadows of war and economic recovery, the records and their covers served as sources of escape and eventually as a valuable form of self-empowerment, allowing him to deal with the complexities of living with the remnants of Japan’s imperial past and in close proximity to signs of ongoing conflict. Today, Nara’s studio wall displays a vast array of records he has accumulated over the past 40 years, including folk, rock, blues, soul, and punk albums. This exhibition aims to move away from some of the dominant perceptions of Nara’s work with Japan’s Neo-Pop movement (largely associated with Takashi Murakami), and also shift the focus from the harshness and intensity of his earlier practice to the self-critical introspection and individuality that have become more prevalent in the quiet, contemplative work he has made in the last decade, particularly since the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami. The artist’s inspiration from the world of 1960s and ’70s folk and rock music filters throughout his practice.
After taking several lengthy journeys to Europe in 1980, 1983, and 1987 while attending art school at Aichi Prefectural University of the Arts where he obtained his BA and MA, Nara was accepted into the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf and lived in Germany from 1988 to 2000 (Düsseldorf from 1988 to 1993 and in Cologne until 2000). This was a period of great isolation for Nara, during which he was reminded of his adolescent years in Aomori, and the development of psychological depth and introspection in his paintings. While Nara’s immense popularity within the Neo-Pop milieu has dominated the critical global reception of his practice to this day, having spent his formative years as a young artist in Germany, Nara sees his work more in dialogue with American and European subcultures.
Nara began creating portable installations of his paintings, drawings, and sculptures, which ranged from the three-part installation S.M.L. (2003) to the epic 26-installation exhibition A to Z (2006). These domestic environments culminated in My Drawing Room (2008), a painted wooden architectural structure that recreates Nara’s studio space. A hand-painted billboard with the words “Place Like Home” hangs on the exterior, and the inside features piles of drawings on the floor and a desk with figurines, mix CDs that Nara curated, vernacular paintings, drawings, ephemera, and collectibles from vintage Americana shops that the artist has accumulated over the years.
Starting in 2005, Nara’s singular portraits began to take a dramatic turn, each projecting a complex expression that combines sadness, anger, and serenity. In Missing in Action – Girl Meets Boy (2005), fire from an atomic bomb explosion is reflected in one of the eyes of the figure, representing a memory of Hiroshima, where this work is housed. The political valence of this work on paper connects the fading memory of the previous generation who experienced the war with the younger generation of Japanese youth who can only indirectly experience this decisive moment.
Nara’s work took a dramatic shift following the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami and the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, which occurred only 43 miles north of his studio. Emotionally affected by the aftermath, Nara painted In the Milky Lake/Thinking One (2011), a portrait of a solemn girl with closed eyelids who wears a green dress and is half-submerged in a barely visible pool of water; it was the only major painting he produced in 2011. While confronting the March 11 disaster and nuclear crisis, Nara made Miss Spring (2012), a portrait of a wide-eyed girl with a high forehead who stands against a cherry-blossom pink background and stares straight at the viewer, with prism-like teardrops glistening in her eyes. A symbol of hope, this portrait served as the cover image for Ryuichi Sakamoto’s No Nukes 2012: Guidebook for Our Future. Miss Spring was used as a powerful backdrop banner by the protest organizers during the demonstrations.
Born in 1959, Yoshitomo Nara grew up in Hirosaki, in Japan’s rural northern prefecture of Aomori. Having graduated with an MFA from the Aichi Prefectural University of Fine Arts and Music, Nagakute, Japan, in 1987, he completed his studies at the Kunstakademie, Düsseldorf, Germany, in 1993. Nara began his career during the decade he spent in Cologne, and from the mid-1990s he exhibited widely in Europe, the United States, Japan, and all over Asia. His return to Japan in 2000 coincided with a surge of global interest in Japanese pop culture, particularly in the United States. While he is primarily a painter, his practice encompasses drawing; sculptures made of wood, FRP, ceramic, and bronze; installations that incorporate scrap materials; and photographs that document everyday landscapes and the encounters he has during his travels.
Yoshitomo Nara’s numerous solo exhibitions include I Forgot Their Names and Often Can't Remember Their Faces but Remember Their Voices Well, Dallas Contemporary, Dallas, TX (2021); Drawings—Last 31 Years, The Bastide Gallery, Château La Coste, Provence, France (2019); for better or worse: Works 1987– 2017, Toyota Municipal Museum of Art, Toyota, Japan (2017); Life is Only One: Yoshitomo Nara, Asia Society Hong Kong Center, Hong Kong, China (2015); Blum & Poe, Los Angeles, CA (2014); NARA Yoshitomo: a bit like you and me..., Yokohama Museum of Art, Yokohama, Japan, traveled to Aomori Museum of Art, Aomori, Japan, and Contemporary Art Museum, Kumamoto, Japan (2012); Nobody’s Fool, Asia Society, New York, NY (2010); Yoshitomo Nara + graf, BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead, UK (2008); Yoshitomo Nara + graf, Museum of Contemporary Art, Den Haag, Netherlands (2007); From the Depth of My Drawer, Hara Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo, Japan (2004); Nothing Ever Happens, Museum of Contemporary Art, Cleveland, OH (2003); and NARA Yoshitomo: I DON’T MIND, IF YOU FORGET ME., Yokohama Museum of Art, Yokohama, Japan (2001).
Following LACMA’s presentation, the exhibition will travel internationally to other museums including the Yuz Museum, Shanghai.
After more than a year of mandated closure due to the COVID-19 pandemic, LACMA will reopen on April 1, 2021. Advance tickets will be required for all visitors, including members, and enhanced health and safety protocols and processes will be in effect. Please click here for more information and to reserve an advance ticket.
New publications on the artist
Edited by Mika Yoshitake
Accompanying the LACMA exhibition is a richly illustrated catalogue that features a foreword by Michael Govan, an introductory essay by exhibition curator Mika Yoshitake, and a series of reviews by Nara, previously unpublished in English, of albums from the 1960s and '70s. In addition, a limited-edition of the exhibition catalogue, packaged in a clamshell case, includes 14 booklets and a colored vinyl record featuring songs drawn from Nara's favorites from the 1960s and '70s. Side A includes one original song written and a selection of covers performed by Yo La Tengo (Georgia Hubley, Ira Kaplan, and James McNew). Side B includes original recordings by artists including Geoff & Maria Muldaur, Bobby Charles, Karen Dalton, and Donovan.
Hardcover; 224 pages
DelMonico Books/Prestel, 2020
9 x 12 inches
by Yeewan Koon
This new monograph about the life and work of Yoshitomo Nara is divided into five chapters, each covering a key theme of the artist's practice: the influence of punk and classic rock music; his experimentations with his big-headed girl figure; his collaborative projects with artists and musicians; his relatively unknown photography work; and his more recent work that responds to the 2011 earthquake and nuclear disaster that affected his home region of northern Japan. The volume was made in close collaboration with Nara himself. From his early days as a student at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf through to the present day, Yoshitomo Nara covers the breadth of his work in painting, drawing, sculpture, ceramics, and photography.
Hardcover; 330 pages
London and New York: Phaidon, 2020
10 x 11.5 inches