Hello Andy!

American pop meets Japanese neo-pop at Denver's MCA.

The fall/winter show at Denver's Museum of Contemporary Art, POPjack: Warhol to Murakami, is a thoughtful and thought-provoking survey of the interrelationships between the American art of the 1960s and '70s and Japanese and American art from the last five years. The compelling exhibit is highly unusual, even if the pairing of pop art and neo-pop art seems like a natural one.

POPjack represents the first time that Denver art audiences have ever seen such an exhibit, because Japanese art is rarely featured here. Strangely, the same goes for American pop art and neo-pop art of any kind.

Not only that, but according to MCA director Cydney Payton, it's the only show of its type anywhere in the country right now. And it's one of the first museum presentations to explore the idea of linking modern art in the United States to the contemporary art of Japan and America. Where better to present it than at the MCA, which is housed in Sakura Square, Denver's Japanese-American business and cultural center? Even the show's labels are in both English and Japanese.

"Melting DOB B," by Takashi Murakami, acrylic on canvas.
courtesy of Takashi Murakami
"Melting DOB B," by Takashi Murakami, acrylic on canvas.

Payton came up with the idea for POPjack in conversations with an MCA donor who wishes to remain anonymous. This donor has a collection that reflects wide-ranging interests in modern and contemporary art, and Payton zeroed in on three distinct yet related styles.

The first selections were works on paper by the major icons of classic pop art. Then Payton chose neo-pop paintings and sculptures by Japanese artists. These pieces riff on Japanese popular culture, as well as the heritage of American pop art and American-invented mass culture. The unnamed donor owns works by a few of the biggest stars of the Japanese neo-pop movement, and Payton put some of the best of them in the show. Finally, she included pieces by American artists that refer to either American pop art or Japanese neo-pop.

Can you say "hermeneutics"?

Oh, I know, I know. I hate to introduce philosophical concepts into an art discussion, but in the case of hermeneutics and how well the art in POPjack illustrates that particular idea, I just have to.

Hermeneutics is the interpretation of an interpretation, and the concept ideally suits pop art because the style represents an interpretation of popular culture, which itself is an interpretation of...the culture. The neo-pop art being done by the Japanese is even more hermeneutical, as it refers to American pop art while representing a translation of Japanese pop culture -- which, in turn, traces its roots back to American popular culture. And then you have American artists referring to Japanese art that in turn refers to American art. Whew.

There are a number of aesthetic links joining pop art and neo-pop art, both Japanese and American. Payton points out several obvious connections (she calls them "superficial" characteristics), including "color, the flatness of pictorial space and the relationship to mass culture."

As is typical of Payton, she not only put this show together, but she oversaw its installation, too, and she's filled the museum to its physical limits, getting things going immediately inside the front door. Because her audience will be much more familiar with the pop classics, Payton might have been tempted to start there, but in a bold move, she begins the show with a work that exemplifies Japanese neo-pop. A series of wall masks made of a variety of materials and collectively titled "The Little Pilgrims" has been hung over the information/admission desk. The piece, from 1999, is by Yoshitomo Nara, one of the most important of the current crop of Japanese neo-pop artists, who, oddly enough, lives in Germany.

Nara is known for his off-kilter figural works that typically explore such sentimental subjects as children, dolls, or, as in the case of "The Little Pilgrims," babies -- at least I think that's what they are. Popjack includes several Naras. Among the standouts are two enigmatic paintings, both done in acrylic on canvas. Like "The Little Pilgrims," 1999's "Yellow Cub" and 2001's "Pale Mountain Dog" are simplified, almost minimal versions of recognizable things.

The source for Nara's imagery is cheap, kitschy Western-style figurines, dolls and stuffed animals that have long been made in Japan. By blowing up the scale and transforming them into sculptures and paintings, Nara imbues his pieces with a strange edginess that is absent from the originals, which are cloying. That sensibility links Nara to pop art, and even more to American post-pop artists of the '80s.

In the main space, Payton sets up the first of several narrative subtexts simply by lining up various pieces. In this case, she contrasts three views of women. The first is by the late Roy Lichtenstein. Titled "Crying Girl," the 1963 offset lithograph portrays -- what else? -- a crying girl. Lichtenstein's approach involved replicating crude mechanical printing by exaggerating the dot patterns of offset lithography. More than any first-generation pop artist, he referenced comics, which would later lead to a variety of styles not related to pop.

Hung next to the Lichtenstein is Aya Takano's "Foods of Turkey," a creepy storybook rendition of an odalisque from 2002, done in acrylic on canvas on panel. Next to the Takano is a painting of a woman who's apparently in danger, perhaps leaping to her death; "Jump" is a 2001 acrylic on canvas by Hideaki Kawashima.

Takano and Kawashima use expressionist brushwork -- a very un-pop thing to do. More in line with neo-pop are their references to cutesy kids' stuff. The women in both of these paintings look like they could be illustrations in children's books.

Across from the three views of women is "Totem," a painted, carved-plywood wall piece by the late Keith Haring. The piece is covered -- or, more accurately, inscribed -- with the post-pop artist's signature stick figures. Another characteristic Haring is "Pyramid," from 1989, a screen print on aluminum that hangs in the museum's coffee shop.

Like many of his pop-art mentors, Haring was gay; camp, an element of the gay sensibility, was an important influence on pop artists and, to a much lesser extent, on the post-pop artists who emerged in the 1980s and the neo-pop artists who came after. In "Totem," a standing male figure reaches for two dancing men. The gay content in pop and post-pop is a thread that's not picked up in this show, despite the inclusion of Haring and several other artists widely known to be gay. Haring died of AIDS in 1990.

Just beyond Haring's "Totem" are three pieces based on Japanese children's-book characters, but here's the twist: They're by Tom Sachs, a New York artist. These neo-pop pieces reveal influences that boomerang with the cross-pollination of sources from New York to Tokyo and back. The imagery Sachs uses is reminiscent of those famous Hello Kitty characters. (In fact, a painting of the well-known feline is hanging upstairs.)

More expected from an American neo-pop artist are references to good old Yankee Doodle pop art. At first glance, you might think that Brenda Zlamany's "Warhol Flower #1," an oil on canvas on panel, is actually by Andy Warhol -- but only at first glance.

Several things clue us in to the piece's origins. It's very painterly, for one thing, and Warhols, for the most part, are not. And while the pairing of panels -- in this case, a red monochrome canvas and a floral one -- is typical of Warhol, his panels were always the same size, and Zlamany's monochrome panel is much smaller.

If you look past the Zlamany and across the big room, a real Warhol print that's essentially the same floral piece comes into view. The Warhol is a color-screen print titled "Flowers," from 1970. This visual comparison of the two pieces is one of the show's great moments, and it emphasizes director Payton's skill in exhibition design.

On that same far wall is Warhol's famous "Mao," a screen print from 1972. It's amazing how contemporary both of these Warhols appear, even though they're three decades old.

Warhol is referenced in the show's title, along with Japanese neo-pop whiz Takashi Murakami, arguably the most important contemporary artist in Japan.

A fabulous Murakami is hanging right next to "Mao." Called "Melting DOB B," the 1999 acrylic on canvas depicts a surrealist child wearing Mickey Mouse ears. The composition is wonderful, as is the tight and hard-edged execution. Murakami creates his work in a factory, à la Warhol, and gives credit to the cast of assistants who carry out his pieces.

Nearby are other Murakamis, notably a box painting, 1997's "Klein's Pot C," and the haunting "Atomic Bomb," from 1999, both of which are acrylic on canvas. Upstairs, Payton has hung a group of working drawings by Murakami that provide instructions to his assistants, including not only the formal designs he wants, but the colors that are to be used, indicated by sample strips taped to the drawings. There's a wonderfully informal quality to these paper works.

Back downstairs, across from the Warhols and the Murakami paintings, is a well-known pop piece from 1972, the four-part "Love," by Robert Indiana. Again, it's astounding how well this piece has held up. The famous image is of the word 'love' all in capitals, one letter per sheet, arranged on two lines. In this version, the letters are in white on a field of blue and red. Next to it is a marvelous robe print by Jim Dine.

One disappointing feature of the show is that Payton failed to connect it to Colorado art -- and not only could she easily have done so, but she typically does. Several artists come to mind, particularly John Haeseler. Although he has not been active for the past several years, that doesn't change the fact that from the mid-'70s to the mid-'90s, Haeseler was the most significant post-pop artist in the area. Others that could have been included are Floyd Tunson, Roland Bernier, Jack Balas, emerging artist Colin Livingston and many more.

Surveying POPjack, I came to the inevitable conclusion that the classic pop pieces by Warhol, Indiana, Dine and a raft of others blow away everything else here. One obvious reason is that the neo and post-pop works, whether American or Japanese, are based on the older pieces and therefore can't possibly equal them. But pop art was a watershed movement of the mid- to late twentieth century, and its stylistic heirs are not part of a subsequent one.

The power of pop is made even clearer by the fact that none of the pop pieces included could even remotely be called major works, since all of them are prints. Yet as modest as they are, these older pieces stand up against the newer ones; the fact that the recent works are full-blown examples in the form of paintings and sculptures doesn't help them out at all.

Minor shortcomings aside, Payton's POPjack is a strong and interesting exhibit, and one of its greatest strengths is that it introduces a heretofore almost entirely unknown topic -- contemporary Japanese art -- to Denver while placing it in the context of American art history.

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