(B. 1959)
Yellow in Blue
titled and signed 'Yellow in Blue Yoshitomo Nara' in English; dated '94' (on the reverse)
acrylic on canvas
180 x 150 cm. (70 7/8 x 59 in.)
Painted in 1994
SCAI the Bathhouse, Tokyo, Japan
Christie's New York, 14 November 2007, Lot 422
Acquired from the above by the present owner
The Miyagi Museum of Art, 15th Anniversary Exhibition: Hiniku na Fantasy,, Sendai, Japan 1996 (illustrated, plate 33, p. 62).
Institut fur Moderne Kunst Nurnberg Michael Zink Gallery, Yoshitomo Nara Lullaby Supermarket, Munich, Germany, 2002 (illustrated, pp. 26 & 190).
Kadokawa Shoten Publishing Co., Ltd., In the Deepest Puddle, Tokyo, Japan, 2006 (illustrated twice, both unpaged).
Sendai, Japan, The Miyagi Museum of Art, 15th Anniversary Exhibition: Hiniku na Fantasy, July-September 1996.

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Felix Yip
Felix Yip

Lot Essay

Nara's aesthetic is painfully delicate and tender resembling a pictorial personal diary, truthfully disclosing yet hiding traces of his past, alluring our peeking interest as a viewer in decoding his personal secrets. Philip Guston once quoted "Painting is an illusion, a piece of magic, so what you see is not what you see. I don't know what a painting is; who knows what sets off even the desire to paint? It might be things, thoughts, a memory, sensations, which have nothing to do directly with painting itself. They can come from anything and anywhere"; perhaps tracing similar purity in artistic conception, Nara unconsciously conjures images of children in innocent aggression stringed from his personal adolescence resembling Guston's primitive and playful spirit that naturally seep through in animated, anthropomorphic forms (Fig. 1); both the artists' handle heavy narratives in surprising buoyancy with cartoon-like figures.

Depth of the unconsciousness is explored and the intensity of inner quarrel towards the modern world is penetrated in Nara's paintings share similar qualities to German Expressionism's subjective depiction of reality, a movement that may have inspired Nara when he left Japan to study in National Art Academy in Dusseldorf in 1988. Created during his academic training in Germany, Harmlos (Innocence) (Lot 1043) is maneuvered in thinned penetration of paints. The background is disturbed with seemingly careless splatters and smears but the intimately layered colors impresses an illusion depth, richness and drama of Mark Rothko (Fig. 2), polished with subtle geometrical composition with areas of color paper adhered to bring pictorial weight down to the otherwise carefree drawing. The fluidity of the space and swift brushworks convey a sense of immediacy, an aesthetic sensibility comparable to graffiti. Theoretically apt with the medium and method Nara selected, the technique of 'collage' metaphorically delivers the ideologies of fusion, supplementing to the free-mixing and boundless and primitive pictorial language of the streets; the raw virtuoso of the seemingly unplanned color patches and incomprehensible composition that portray innocent illusions similar to Jean-Michel Basquiat (Fig. 3). Nara too instills humorous imageries incoherent with each other, crafting further the dream-like street quality to his works with his 'tagging' inscription of 'Harmlos' (Harmless) to maybe assure us of our perplexity of this graphic puzzle, or to allegedly inform us that the haunting image of the ghost and its flying dagger is simply just 'harmless'.

Harmlos (Innocence) and Yellow in Blue (Lot 1041) were subtle in its provocation and mysterious in emotional variety but his recent work Angry Blue Boy (Lot 1042) is no longer indecisive in commanding frustration and is rather direct with its flat planes of colors and sharp outlines to visibly express an infantile emotion and bluntly answer viewer's usual uncertainty on the temperament of the child, together with its didactic title. As Nara's creations progressed, his paintings exhibited more reductive qualities, where imageries became more isolated without narrative context or background to reveal introverted and complex emotional experiences of alienation he felt in Germany to his childhood. Nara utilized bold and flat projection of form with repetitive contouring of circular silhouettes of oversized head and speech bubbles, an overall aesthetic endeavor that is similar to the simple and direct qualities of wood carving and printing of Ukiyo-e woodblock prints (Fig. 4). Nara revitalized this traditional technique and social channel and found a conceptual likeness to his interest in sub culture of Punk music blended with Pop Art's commerciality of mass production. Affiliated with Japan's Neo-Pop Art movement in the 1990s as one of the most influential artist, Nara's sweet often menacing children have now become a cult in itself, recognized by many outside of the arts, finding their way into the hearts of the masses as printed characters on T-shirts, watches, and even appearing on the cover of a novel by contemporary Japanese writer- Banana Yoshimoto. Nara's trademark idols have now become part of the kawaii fragment of Japanese culture and art but containing aspects that are not all 'cute' but concealing social and psychological symbolism in response to the rigid system and hyper-controlled society of Japan. Its immense global power and obsession for these kawaii fictional characters elevated into a some sort of a cult, akin to the iconic charm of Nara's painting to the art world; Hello Kitty was designed without a mouth for the viewer to easily relate their subjective mood with the character as to Nara in awakening the deeply rooted rebel in every one of us in an excusable and forgivable facade of children. Recognizing his potential dominance in arts and popular culture, The Asia Society Museum dedicated their entire space for one contemporary artist for the first time in their museum's history, in which Nara's first major New York Exhibition was organized into three major recurring themes; Angry Blue Boy was represented under Rebellion among Isolation and Music.

Nara's endeavor to dialogue between the past, present and future is clear as he recites similar principles as traditional oriental paintings in combining poetry, calligraphy and image (Fig. 5) to enrich the overall aesthetic by consciously rendering traces of poetry, shaping speech bubbles void of narrative context to further isolate his figures within the flat and muted layers of pale blue and yet open his paintings for a subjective interpretation. Noting the dictating qualities of language, Nara intentionally eliminated words to communicate raw emotions solely through images; the oversized head strapped within the canvas frown impatience and impotent anger through empty speech balloons that serve as a pictorial symbol of the child's sigh and frustration, a method often expressed in comic books. Nara's premeditated composition of various sizes of these empty speech bubbles in sporadic rhythm may utter increasing aggravation of the child distressed by his solitude with no one to communicate with, or perhaps is intended to articulate an uninhabitable feeling that is indescribable in words; nevertheless the child in his painting is defying against the square frame, eager to demonstrate his existence.

From 1991, his subject matters typically appear in solitude, eyes extended upwards in silent fury, their heads blown up larger than their petite bodies, a feature classically characterized in animation when expressing an irritated, tolerated moment before an angry outburst. Yellow in Blue epitomize all these iconic qualities of Nara; the child is adorned in superficial cuteness as she stands demandingly with tightly gripped hands, pursed lips and skeptical eyes expanding her ears large, ready to retort to the viewer. The nimble, smoothly layered texture of pastel blue strongly contour against the yellow dress of the girl, her cheeks delicately blushed in swallowing her impatience and crying for attention. Taking note of Nara's philosophy that was inspired by Punk and Rock music during the 70s, viewers notice that the aesthetic development of minimizing excess details and advocating for focus on solitary subject matter is a decisive artistic metaphor for the ideologies of punk rock in its rebellion, free thought and individualism; hence, where the child in his canvas tempered with a rock star spirit.

Yoshitomo Nara's imaginative world is typically layered with ambiguous emotions with simple staging of iconographic characters that speak volumes of universal social contexts, allowing the audience to intuitively and individually relate to his subjects, thus the accessibility and recognition of his paintings establishing him as a part of contemporary pop culture itself. With an amiable illustration that balances between minimal and poetic qualities of oriental paintings yet similarly adopting Pop Art's response to depersonalization, Nara fluently marvels between individual subjectivity and mass consciousness by creating childhood themes that maneuver in multiple spheres, appealing to different and widespread viewers.

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