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How did canvas material become art?

March 05, 2011|By Mike Boehm, Los Angeles Times

What was the process by which repurposed canvas handbag material worth less than $100 per swath was turned into artworks that reaped $1.4 million selling at $6,000 or $10,000 each during the 2007-08 Takashi Murakami retrospective at L.A.'s Museum of Contemporary Art?

It was all in the conceptualization rather than the execution, according to documents from Clint Arthur's suit against Louis Vuitton, which sold the works in a special boutique set up at the museum's Geffen Contemporary.

Aaron Talbot, who had coordinated the art-fabrication for a Virginia packaging company that was a regular Louis Vuitton supplier, testified in a deposition that to his surprise Murakami barely looked at the finished pieces when he arrived at a Louis Vuitton facility in San Dimas to inspect and sign them.

Instead, the artist became the main cog in an assembly line set up in a small conference room. The canvases were set face-down on a table so that Murakami could sign the metal and wood "chassis," or backings; Talbot said that the only ones Murakami appeared to view from the front were a few samples he looked at before he began to sign and some that the artist got down on the floor to put into boxes to help speed the process. It took no more than an hour or two to sign the 500 backings, Talbot said, although the resulting signatures "[didn't] even look like a `Murakami,' more of a scribble."

Talbot said he was surprised how quickly the signing went, because his boss had passed along word from Louis Vuitton that Murakami was intent on seeing that his specifications had been met and would examine each item. A key element in the creative process, Louis Vuitton executive Marc Mauclair testified in a deposition, was the stapling of each canvas to its chassis – which was carried out by contractors in California rather than by the artist himself. Each stapling "should be completely done by hand in an artisanal way, as if you had taken the painting from [Murakami's] own workshop," Mauclair said. Expecting that the artist would reject a number of the finished works, Louis Vuitton had ordered 650 when only 500 were to be offered for sale.

In another deposition, Yuko Sakata Burtless, who was executive director of Murakami's company, Kaikai Kiki, until shortly after the MOCA exhibition opened, said that Murakami-designed Louis Vuitton handbags, which retailed for up to $1,000, had been intended to "[blur] the line between art and luxury product." By repackaging the same fabric as expensive artworks at MOCA, Murakami would "take it even further," she said.

The point, Sakata said, was that "if … an artist took [handbag material] and signed it and says it's an artwork, then it's an artwork…. And if it's bought as artwork, then it's an artwork. It's understood as artwork."

mike.boehm@latimes.com

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