Unsurprisingly, for a country with as deep and ancient arts as Japan, the country’s fine art scene is one of the world’s most important. Art is as basic a form of expression to the Japanese as any activity, and artists are honored for their contributions to the country’s cultural life. Contemporary Japanese artists are on a level with the United States’ and Western Europe’s, and Japanese artists show frequently in galleries, and are enshrined in the top modern art museums all over the world.
There are dozens of top artists in Japan – many of whom live and work abroad for at least part of the year – and their work is widely accessible online and in books and publications, as well as in galleries and museums. But here are five artists who are regarded both by the Japanese and the larger art world as being among the world’s finest working artists.
Takashi Murakami is probably Japan’s most famous painter. Known to some as the “Andy Warhol of the East” for his fusing of high and commercial arts in Japan, he came of age in the post-War era, and like Warhol he made little distinction between his work for galleries and his commercial work. Noting that much traditional Japanese painting – not to mention manga and anime – was visually two-dimensional, Murakami dubbed his work, with its “flat” planes of color, “Superflat,” a word that now describes a style that has influenced many artists in Japan and beyond.
Murakami’s work is shown in museums and galleries, but he has also collaborated with fashion designers Louis Vuitton, Marc Jacobs and Issey Miyake and even created skateboard decks for the clothing company Supreme. His inclusive strategy has worked well: His provocative 1998 sculpture My Lonesome Cowboy sold for $13.5 million in 2008, the same year he was the only visual artist included in Time magazine’s list of The 100 Most Influential People.
Yayoi Kusama is almost as famous for her personal look as for her spectacular art. Sporting a scarlet wig and elfin affect, the 88-year-old Kusama was Bjork and Lady Gaga before the latter two were born. But it is her art (and writing) that has made her Japan’s most-beloved artist. Kusama’s art, born of her lifelong hallucinations of pixilated visions, are explosions and refractions of color and light, embodied in her quintessential form: the polka dot.
Kusama began creating her polka-dot art at 10, and what began as a young girl’s playfulness has expanded into a singular artistic vision in the subsequent seven decades, with painting, sculpture, and mirrored room installations that aim continuously to capture her remarkable hallucinations. Kusama, like Murakami, has also pursued her vision into commercial applications, and her artwork itself has sold for as much as $5.1 million – the most money ever paid for a work by a female artist.
Yoko Ono may be the most famous of these artists, in part for her marriage to the late John Lennon. But Ono was an important artist long before she met Lennon, and at 84 continues to create in a variety of media.
Ono’s work was avant garde from the start, making her an early performance artist when that was still a barely-recognized term, and a well-known conceptual artist who worked with music as well as installation art. A survivor of the allied fire-bombing of Tokyo at the end of World War II, Ono has made political action as important as her artwork, first as an early feminist and then in her work to promote peace and understanding around the world.
Nobuyuki Araki is often simply known by his last name, and that name has graced more works of art that just about any major artist in the world; he has published more than 350 different photography books in his career. Originally working in advertising, Araki moved on to create a diaristic study of his long marriage to writer Yoko Aoki, including graphic depictions from their honeymoon to her death.
Sadomasochism, bondage and prostitution – as well as scenes of great love and intimacy – have informed his work, and made him controversial as well as famous. In particular, his photos of works of Japanese rope tying – Kinbaku-bi, or the “beauty of tight binding,” particularly of traditionally-dressed Japanese women – are known around the world. He, too, has worked with fashion designers.
Mariko Mori began her career working in photography, but has moved far beyond its limitations. Many of her early works had her creating fanciful, futuristic costumes that made points about gender roles, sometimes posing herself in specific public places. In some pieces, she would insert herself into existing photos to create surprising juxtapositions; in others, she interacted with passersby in ways that were more performance art than mere photography.
A near-death experience in her early twenties deepened her art, and she began to consider consciousness and mortality in her work. Her enormous sculptural installations have shown in museums around the world, and she has created outdoor works that are situated in natural settings, such as her recent, multi-location work Rebirth, in which her clean forms are set amidst the unpredictable elements of nature. A survey of her life’s work, entitled Oneness, toured the world beginning in 2011, becoming the most-visited contemporary art exhibition tour ever.