Yoshitomo Nara is one of Japan’s most esteemed contemporary artists and, in the last few years, he has garnered international acclaim. In 2019, his painting, Knife Behind Back, sold for $25 million, during a bidding war at Sotheby’s Hong Kong. Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) is currently exhibiting a retrospective of Nara’s works that span more than three decades, from 1987 to 2020.
Nara was born in 1959 in Aomori Prefecture in northern Japan. He was a lonely latchkey kid, who read comics and listened to the music broadcast from a nearby American military base. The music, and the album covers, had a profound effect on his work. “As for records,” he said, “I bought a lot of imported records because they were inexpensive even for someone my age. But, you know, I couldn’t read the jacket cover of the thing I’d just purchased! Yet I pulled the record out of the cover and started listening with the cover in my hand. It got my imagination moving a lot and gradually I started picking up words. Little by little, I constructed the world of the record using imagination. I think I trained my imagination through the picture books and records, without knowing I was doing so.”
The entry to the LACMA exhibit contains a wall of Nara’s album covers, and visitors can listen to an Exhibition Soundtrack of the artist’s favorite songs. Included in the soundtrack is Both Sides Now by Joni Mitchell, Universal Soldier by Donovan and Come Wind Come Rain by Vashti Bunyan. The first record that Nara bought in English was the 1967 single, Massachusetts by the Bee Gees.
In 1988, Nara moved to Germany, where he studied and taught. “I went there when I was 28 years old.” he said, “I was in my last year of art college, and was teaching art to high school students. As I did, I gradually felt that it was not them but me who must be taught art. I chose Germany just by chance. In fact, I could have gone to London instead. I can’t imagine what my life would be had I gone to London at that time, when the city was a mecca of young, energetic artists. For one reason or another, I ended up living in Germany for 12 years. I became literally ‘alone’ there. It strongly reminded me of the memory of my lonely childhood. I felt the city’s (Düsseldorf) cold and darkness, just like my hometown, and the atmosphere there reinforced my tendency to seclude myself from the outer world. It helped me to remember the boy-me’s feelings from back in my hometown, too. So I started talking with the 7- or 8-year-old boy-me in Aomori and the 28-year-old current-me in Germany, beyond the time-gap of 20 years, and the thousands of kilometers of distance between the countries. The result of the conversation was so obvious: what I drew changed drastically.”
In 2011, when a devastating earthquake hit Japan, Nara found that he was unable to draw or paint. He spent most of his time volunteering as a relief worker. It was during this period that he began to create sculptures and, eventually, was able to return to drawing and painting.
Yoshitomo Nara: Peace of Mind will be at LACMA through January, 2022 and then will travel to the Yuz Museum in Shanghai, the Museo Guggenheim Bilbao and the Kunsthal in Rotterdam.
Tara Yarlagadda. Yoshitomo Nara Captures Children in All Their Rage and Wonder. Hyperallergic. August 11, 2021.
Elisa Wouk Almino. Yoshitomo Nara Reflects on His Major LACMA Retrospective. Hyperallergic. October 7, 2020.
Eric Vilas-Boas. Works by Elizabeth Catlett and Yoshitomo Nara Set Auction Records for the Artists. Hyperallergic. October 10, 2019.
Angelica Villa. The Most Expensive Yoshitomo Nara Works Ever to Sell at Auction. ArtNews. August 12, 2021.
Hideo Furukawa. An Interview with Yoshitomo Nara. Asymptote. November 2013.