Welcome to our new series, WTF is… [fill in the blank]. Kind of a beginner’s guide to contemporary art, we’re going to introduce various art world buzzwords that you may have heard, but don’t totally understand. For our first entry, we’ll talk about Superflat, a Japanese contemporary art movement.

Takashi Murakami, “Tan Tan Bo” (2001) (image from laist.com)

You may have heard the term “Superflat” tossed around in relation to some paintings reminiscent of Saturday morning cartoons on crack, or maybe a series of drawings that look familiar, but with an extra dash of foreign, outer-space weirdness. You’ve probably heard of “kawaii” culture or maybe even Kaikai-Kiki. And if you haven’t? Fear not, because we’re going to go through all this vocab together to marshal what exactly Superflat is.

Essentially, Superflat is a Japanese contemporary art movement that gained steam in the early 2000s, the same time that its chief theorist, artist, writer, and business impresario Takashi Murakami, was making himself a superstar in the Western art world. Murakami’s work is defined first by its visual aesthetic, an instantly recognizable, super-slick gloss that combines anime (Japanese animated cartoons) and ukiyo-e (traditional Japanese block prints) influences, as well as the mass production fetish of Warhol. Murakami invents his own cartoon characters and sets them loose in a psychedelic world of neon colors. This is where kawaii, an intense Japanese version of “cute” that comes with an edge of the bizarre, comes in.

Takashi Murakami (image from newyorker.com)

Otaku is another important word to note when talking about Murakami and Superflat. The term denotes a kind of super-fan, a Japanese stereotype of someone obsessed with anime and manga (Japanese comics) to the point of it being a little creepy. But these otaku are also super-studied in their chosen specialty — they know everything about their particular niches, as much as Murakami obsessively studies and synthesizes Japanese visual culture, from past to present.

Murakami doesn’t just stop at paintings either. His practice, aided by factory-like studios spread across the US and Japan, expands to sculpture, commercial products, and a certain infamous Louis Vuitton bag. Murakami doesn’t make a distinction between his singular paintings and a key chain featuring one of his characters, it’s all the same work. The artist even preceded George Condo in creating album covers for Kanye West. And this universality is where the idea of Superflat comes in.

Aside from being a great artist, Murakami also has a PhD from Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music in traditional Nihonga painting. The fact that he’s a studied art historian is important in relation to Superflat, because Superflat has an impeccable theoretical background. Superflat might bring to mind Warhol’s integration of fine art and pop culture into one flat plane. Murakami expands on that, appropriating the contemporary globalized visual culture and the new possibilities of manufacturing to create a flawless mix of high art and the lowbrow that can be bought in any country and consumed anywhere — without diminishing the art’s impact. Super flat!

Aya Takano, “A Night Walk” (2005) (image from tokyoartgallery.com)

To the end of flattening, Murakami has spread into commercial business. Beyond making, marketing, and selling his own work, Murakami has taken it upon himself to push the work of other Japanese artists that are also part of the Superflat movement. Kaikai Kiki Co., Ltd. is Murakami’s company arm, representing such artists as Mr., Chiho Aoshima, Chinatsu Ban, and Aya Takano. GEISAI is a twice-yearly “art fair with a twist” held in Tokyo and administrated by Kaikai Kiki. Not just about selling work, GEISAI is about fostering the Japanese contemporary art community and teaching young artists about the market.

The fact that several other artists are represented under Murakami’s company doesn’t make them subordinate, either. Chiho Aoshima has been particularly visible with her massive, printed murals that have decked out the London subways among other places. Chinatsu Ban makes some awesome cartoon-y elephants, while Aya Takano‘s moody drawings relate to the anime aesthetic in a different, more handmade way. Yoshitomo Nara is somewhat off to the side of Superflat as a predecessor, his very handmade lo-fi paintings and drawings poking at pop culture, but without the cynicism that often comes with Superflat.

Any contemporary art terms you need explained? Email me and I’ll give it my best shot in this series! kyle [at] hyperallergic.com, just put WTF in the headline, because art is confusing enough.

Kyle Chayka was senior editor at Hyperallergic. He is a cultural critic based in Brooklyn and has contributed to publications including ARTINFO, ARTnews, Modern Painters, LA Weekly, Kill Screen, Creators...

2 replies on “WTF is… Superflat?”