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signed with artist's signature, titled and dated 'Present '94' (on the reverse)
acrylic on canvas
180.3 x 149.9 cm. (71 x 59 in.)
Painted in 1994
Gallery d'Eendt, Amsterdam
Sotheby's New York, 9 November 2004, Lot 11
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner
Bijutsu Shuppan Sha, Yoshitomo Nara: The complete works (Volume 1: Paintings, Sculptures, Editions, Photographs 1984-2010), Tokyo, 2011 (illustrated, p. 99).
Amsterdam, Galerie d'Eendt, Hula Hula Garden, 1994.

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Jacky Ho (何善衡) Senior Vice President, Deputy Head of Department

Lot Essay

'The beauty of Nara’s work lies in its very multiplicity and deft manipulation of our predisposition to distrust images. He sneaks into our midst under the guise of cuteness, only to ply us with much darker visions of the world.' —Michael Darling

Immediately captivated by its sumptuous scale, Present embodies Yoshitomo Nara’s most salient motif: an androgynous child with angled eyes, rosy-cheeks, and a chubby fist clutching a sword—an infantile figure that is at once vulnerable and forceful, demanding full attention with its subversive move against the pristine turquoise background. Captured in an asymmetric composition characteristic of Nara’s early career, this little figure in vermillion dress is ostensibly advancing to the viewer. Its motion is animated by the coarse contour lines built through layers of repainting, creating a sense of virtual movement and constant change that resonates with the subject—a child or an adolescence—a being that epitomises the notion of change and metamorphosis; an ever-evolving entity that constantly approaches the world with new lens.

Painted in 1994, Present is one of the seven portraits featuring a child with a knife Nara created in the first half of the 1990s, a limited group which also included The Girl with the Knife in Her Hand (1991) collected by San Francisco of Modern Art. As a prologue to his breakout solo exhibition at SCAI the Bathhouse in Tokyo the following year, Present was executed during a radical year when Yoshitomo Nara, with the help of the Cologne-based gallerist Jörg Johnen, relocated to Cologne and had a more spacious studio to work on larger canvases after his graduation from the esteemed Staatliche Kunstakademie, Dusseldorf. Began to live and work in a former factory building on the outskirts of Cologne, it was considered the early career highlight for Nara—his name was for the first time listed alongside an impressive list of artists like Thomas Ruff, Dan Graham, Katharina Fritsch, and he had a cavernous space to crystallise his intimate, psychological state of solitude and nostalgia into his works. It is in this context the archetypal child that embodies pride, independence and the power to defeat was created, like the one in Present. A complete opposite to his peer Takashi Murakami’s factory-like atelier and many of his contemporaries, Nara’s studio practice is highly solitary with no aid of assistants. Kristin Chamber once stated Nara was 'channelling all of his past ghosts and present emotion into the deceptive sample face of his current subject' while he worked alone in his studio at night, chain-smoking and listening to punk rock music. (K. Chamber, quoted in Yoshitomo Nara: Nothing Ever Happens, exh. cat. Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland, Ohio 2004, p. 26).

'I don’t dislike manga, but I’m not interested in it […] Picture books tell many stories with one picture, so this kind of system, narrative emerging from a single picture, has had a much stronger influence on my work, particular my early work, I think,' Nara once stated. Born in 1959 in Hirosaki, a rural city in the Aomori Prefecture 450 miles away from Tokyo, Nara’s family is one of the post-war nuclear families where the young Nara spent most of his time alone exploring his neighbourhood near Mount Iwaki, reading children’s books like Aesop’s Fables, Hans Christian Andersen fairy tales, and Brother Grimm, and sometimes tapping into broadcast music streaming from the American military bases nearby. Nara was greatly inspired by Takeshi Motai (1908-1956), a painter, poet, and author who made illustrations for literary works and children books during the turbulent times, as Nara once stated, ‘Motai’s aesthetic sensibility found its source in everyday life and this makes it sublime, expressing a pure soul that transcends the difference between Western and Eastern art’ ( Y. Nara, quoted in Yoshimoto Nara: Nobody's Fool exh. cat. Asia Society Museum, New York 2010, p. 18). Recently, Nara had organised an exhibition to pay tribute to Motai, which reveals the profound influence of this older artist on Nara.

As someone who prefers David Bowie over the Beatles, Nara often identifies himself as an artist that falls outside the canon like Motai despite his formal training under the tutelage of German painter A.R. Penck (1939-2017). His oeuvre of infantile or adolescent characters affirms his vision to reignite the emotional capacious power in figurative painting, which was being overlooked in the 1990s. The austere but organic lines featured in Present resembling the temperate, free-handed drawings of Japanese cartoons in the 1950s or the dark pop colours of old-fashioned picture books, ‘sharing the same inherent subversiveness against 'classical style' like the faux-naïve paintings of Magic Realism, the German figurative paintings in the 1920s, and the early Lucien Freud (1922-2011)’ (M. Matsui, New Japanese Painting in 1990s, Tokyo 1999, p.12).

'A rock musician can share mental impulses with his audience in real time depending on the beat or the warped guitar sound he play. Likewise, Nara realizes something with his inner self as he uses his materials and simple images. His materials are his guitar, while images are his melody, his beat.'—Takashi Azumaya

Evolving from the widely-studied The Girl with the knife in her hand (1991), a work that marks a critical shift in Nara's style from the rough-hewn neo-expressionism to a simplified and contained collective appeal, Present is a refined, quintessential painting that fulfils what art critic Midori Matsui described as 'the allegorical ability to express narrative through singular image endowed with powerful emotional appeal and enigmatic fragment that evoked associations' (M. Matsui, ‘A Child in the White Field: Yoshitomo Nara as a Great “Minor Artist”’, Yoshitomo Nara: The Complete Works, Paintings, Sculptures, Editions, Photographs, Vol. 1, Tokyo 2011, p. 334). Although Nara's technique and composition may be reminiscent of works from the traditional Japanese ukiyo-e woodblock master Kitagawa Utamaro or modern Italian artist Amedeo Modigliani (1884-1920), Present is utterly original and has the aptitude to transcend art world codification and prevalent lexicon.

Following his first international retrospective unveiled at Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) last year, the institutional recognition of Nara’s works is invincible. Yoshimoto Nara’s practice has become a globally influential artistic phenomenon that attracts interest from followers to collectors, and art critics to institutions, commanding the market like Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein, who both overturn the dichotomy between visual assumption and reality by using a simple image. Tender and enchanting in its exquisite execution, the present work is grounded in something universally relatable and that continues to grow—a shared and globalised culture. Present, like its title, is an astonishing testament to the unrivalled emotional resonance that stands throughout time and that positions Nara as one of the most internationally acclaimed living artists of our times.

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