Yoshitomo Nara’s Cute Paintings Are Sparking Serious Market Action

Christy Kuesel
Dec 18, 2019 10:48PM

Yoshitomo Nara, Knife Behind Back, 2000. Courtesy of Sotheby's.

Yoshitomo Nara’s first children’s book, The Lonesome Puppy (2008), which follows the story of a comically large dog and a determined young girl, is a sweet account of friendship, even if the girl looks slightly malicious. The project is representative of what sets Nara apart from other artists: His distinctive depiction of children, as well as his expansion into collectible items like toys and books, help him appeal to audiences outside of the traditional contemporary art world.

Nara has been steadily producing art since his days at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf in the late 1980s and early ’90s, and has exhibited widely across the globe. In many circles, Nara is a household name. Tim Blum, Nara’s longtime dealer, described his effect as approaching a “Kusama-like” level, while Yuki Terase, Sotheby’s head of contemporary art for Asia, said Nara’s aesthetic of grumpy little girls are as recognizable as Warhol’s Marilyns and Lichtenstein’s blonde-haired girls.


Nara’s painting Can’t Wait ‘til the Night Comes (2012) depicts a young androgynous figure with narrowed eyes and a fang poking out of the corner of their mouth. The work sold for HK$92.8 million (US$11.9 million) with fees last month at Christie’s to an Asian collector.

“Nara’s work attracts both new and experienced collectors alike, so we find that his work has broad market appeal among collectors of all nationalities and categories,” said Evelyn Lin, head of Christie’s Asian 20th-century and contemporary art department.

Nara has shown internationally since the 1980s and brought his distinctive style to the United States in 1995, but the Western art market took its time noticing his appeal. In a 2010 review of Nara’s first major solo exhibition in New York, held at the Asia Society, New York Times art critic Roberta Smith asked: “Has New York been the last to know?”

Yoshitomo Nara, Can't Wait 'til the Night Comes, 2012. Courtesy of Christie's.

It was Nara’s Asia Society show that first piqued the interest of Pace Gallery, which started to represent him in 2011. “Arne [Glimcher, founder of Pace] recognized Nara’s incredible sensitivity with the layering of color and paint and how emotionally expressive the paintings were,” said Joe Baptista, vice president of Pace.

The art market has finally caught on to the Nara craze. At Art Basel in Miami Beach earlier this month, Blum & Poe, which started representing Nara in 1995, sold five Nara works with prices ranging from $60,000 to $250,000. And earlier this year, at a much higher price point, his auction record was smashed. The painting Knife Behind Back (2000) brought in nearly six times his previous auction record, achieved at a Sotheby’s auction in October. After a 10-minute bidding war involving six collectors from around the world, the painting went to a private collector from Asia for HK$195.6 million (US$24.9 million), eclipsing Nara’s previous auction record of US$4.4 million, set in May earlier this year at Christie’s.

Courtesy of Sotheby's.

At first glance, Knife Behind Back seems to merely depict a grumpy young girl in a collared red dress. But its title—and the fact that the viewer can only see one of the girl’s arms—gives the painting a more sinister feeling, implying that much more is taking place out of sight.

“The work exemplifies key shifts in Nara’s artistic preoccupations at the time: large-format canvases, visible signs of ‘humanization,’ and a new subtlety in his choice of motif,” said Terase.

Knife Behind Back was painted during a pivotal moment in Nara’s life. After spending 12 years in Germany, the artist moved back to Japan in 2000. During his time abroad, Nara was influenced by German subcultures, Neo-Expressionism, and punk rock, but his interest in music started long before that.

Yoshitomo Nara
The Little Wanderer, 2003
New Art Editions
Yoshitomo Nara
Solid Fist Skateboard Deck, 2016
Artware Editions

Nara was born in 1959 in Hirosaki in Aomori Prefecture, Japan, near a U.S. air base. As a youth, he was able to buy records there, prompting a fascination with American and European music. Some of his first exposure to art came from looking at album covers. Mika Yoshitake, curator of an upcoming Nara retrospective at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, sees this influence reflected directly in Nara’s work. The LACMA exhibit—which will be one of Nara’s largest shows to date, comprising over 100 works and about 700 works on paper—will honor the artist’s passion for music by exhibiting 300 record covers from his personal collection.

“Nara went into music with punk rock, and there’s this kind of harshness and intensity to a lot of the paintings,” Yoshitake said. “But in recent years he’s really gone back to listening to folk music, so there’s a much more contemplative read to his work that might be reminiscent of the simplicity of folk music.”

Yoshitomo Nara
Cosmic Girl ( Eyes Open, Eyes Shut) , 2008
Rosenfeld Gallery LLC

While some of Nara’s earlier works appear two-dimensional, his embrace of folk music has gone hand in hand with the more nuanced, textural detail in his recent works. In many of them, the figures depicted appear more pensive than mischievous. Adieu Fille D’Automne (2014) shows a young girl staring directly ahead with two differently colored eyes; her hair and skin comprise a prism of deep oranges, greens, reds, and browns. Overall, the effect of the painting is much more lifelike than that of some of Nara’s earlier works, and may recall associations with autumn or walking in a forest. The work sold at Sotheby’s in Hong Kong in April of this year for HK$26.5 million (US$3.4 million).

Nara is also influenced by current events. The 2011 Tōhoku earthquake in Japan, which triggered a tsunami and a nuclear emergency at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, deeply affected him and made him unable to work for several months; instead, he volunteered with relief groups to support those affected by the earthquake. When protesters took to the streets in Japan to demonstrate against nuclear power after the disaster, many held signs with Nara’s No Nukes Girl (1997),which depicts a defiant young girl in pigtails. The artist supported the use of his work in the protests, and allowed an anti-nuclear music festival to use his work, as well.

This commitment to social activism is apparent on Nara’s social media accounts, where he is very active; his Twitter bio reads: “NO WAR! NO NUKES! LOVE & PEACE!” In addition to reaching out to his fans through digital platforms, the artist offers works more accessible to the average Nara follower, having designed skateboards, plush toys, and figurines, all of which depict his childlike characters. Fans who can’t afford Nara’s paintings can purchase these items—yet far from cheapening the artist’s work, they offer greater access to his art practice at a time when his auction prices are spiking.

In 2020, Nara’s popularity will only continue to soar: An exhibition at Dallas Contemporary in September will showcase mostly new works, and a major monograph released through Phaidon will come out in April, coinciding with the opening of the LACMA show. After the Nara retrospective wraps in Los Angeles, it will travel to the Yuz Museum in Shanghai, the Guggenheim Bilbao, and the Kunsthal Rotterdam, putting Nara’s work in front of new audiences and in regions where he has not exhibited before.

No matter where his work is shown, viewers appreciate Nara’s depiction of human emotion through his distinctive style. “He’s always been the great leveler,” Blum said. “Every sort of person quiets down in front of a Nara painting.”

Christy Kuesel