Little Thinker

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  • Condition Report

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  • Provenance

    Blum & Poe, Los Angeles
    Acquired from the above by the present owner in 2001

  • Exhibited

    Houston, Asia Society, Texas Center, Contemporary Asian Art: Texas Connections, April 14 - September 16, 2012

  • Video

    Yoshitomo Nara, 'Little Thinker', Lot 4

    20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale, 14 October

  • Catalogue Essay

    Executed in Yoshitomo Nara’s signature style, Little Thinker, 2000, commemorates the meditative faculty of imagination and the individual. The protagonist is one of Nara’s most enduring motifs, a child, whose eyes are softly closed in a state of gentle reflection against a creamy, luminescent background. The child is ambiguously gendered, a typical tactic of the artist’s which he explained by noting, “I don’t think of her as a girl because it is a neutral image. It is just something that popped into my mind and I have not thought about it. For me, there is no distinct sex because people become men or women when they grow up. Children are more neutral. That is the way I see them” (Yoshitomo Nara, quoted in Catherine Shaw, “Yoshitomo Nara in Conversation”, Ocula, May 9, 2016, online). Though Nara’s youths have appeared emanating a wide range of emotional complexities, from violence to mischief to quiet contemplation, the present work is emblematic of the painter’s depictions of children as manifestations of adult activities. The epitome of the artist’s fusion of the “superflat” aesthetic of his peer, Takashi Murakami, and Buddhist inner stillness, Little Thinker is an homage to moments of interiority and quietude found within the bustle of contemporary culture.

    The graphic and highly stylized approach in Little Thinker is evocative of the exaggerated, flat features used for characters in anime and manga, two of the most predominant influences on Japanese contemporary art. Moreover, Nara’s work shares a “kawaii” quality, or a Japanese notion of extreme cuteness, with these media’s portrayals of childhood. Despite these affinities with youthful storytelling, Nara’s seemingly incorrupt protagonists are implicated in undisputedly adult narratives: sometimes they hold weapons, smoke cigarettes, or wear menacing glances, and other times, such as in Little Thinker, they are engaged in serene, silent meditation, a sharp contrast to the energetic disposition typically assigned to children. In depicting juveniles wise beyond their years, Nara utilizes the simple, uninhibited world of youth to explore the brutality of adult life and to remind the viewer of the poignant innocence of childhood imagination. “Nara does not retreat entirely into the make-believe,” the curator Kristin Chambers elucidated. “Rather, he provides a conduit to another world—a world hopefully still within reach—through the immediacy and directness of children. He invites us to reconnect with the imaginative and imaginary possibilities in their distant but once familiar land” (Kristin Chambers, Yoshitomo Nara: Nothing Ever Happens, exh. cat., Museum of Contemporary Art, Cleveland, 2003, p. 26).

    Little Thinker was executed during a pivotal year in Nara’s career, during which he returned to Japan after 12 years living abroad in Germany. Coinciding with the artist’s return to his native country, prominent aesthetic and conceptual shifts arose in his production, such as his employment of simple compositions painted on large format canvases and the refined execution of his signature, luminous expanses, such as in Little Thinker. “The beings I had drawn and painted in Germany began to mature. The emotional quality of the earlier work gave way to a new sense of composure,” Nara reflected. “In my pursuit of fresh imagery, I switched from idle experimentation to a more workmanlike approach toward capturing what I saw beyond the canvas” (Yoshitomo Nara, Yoshitomo Nara: The Complete Works, vol. 1, San Francisco, 2011, p. 45). This new pursuit led to not only formal changes but to mood shifts as well: while in the 1990s the artist used the motif of the young girl as a symbol for rebellion or adolescent violence, he softened his characters’ dispositions at the end of the decade. A quiet portrayal of introspective reflection, Little Thinker epitomizes Nara’s evolution to more serene and humanized scenes during this period.

    It is apt that, in this shift to depicting ruminative interiority, the artist would choose to render children with their eyes delicately closed. Though it is unclear if the protagonist of Little Thinker is meditating or day-dreaming, the child regardless betrays a Buddha-esque sense of tranquility, a divergence from the immaturity customarily associated with youth. The adult nature of the character’s disposition was further illuminated by Nara’s decision to name his 2017 exhibition at Pace Gallery, New York Thinker and to later clarify that he himself is the thinking being that the show referred to. In fact, the child’s expression in Little Thinker is more evocative of Saint Francis’s tranquil visage painted by Nara’s idol, Giotto, in Dream of the Palace, 1297-1299, Basilica of Saint Francis of Assisi, than of the slumbering face of Paul Gauguin’s child in Clovis Sleeping, 1894. In this sense, Little Thinker hints not at a wild youthful fantasy but instead at a conscious, sagacious internal world that is only accessible to him/her. Indeed, the philosopher Yoshitomo Takayuki has delineated Nara’s paintings like the present work as triggering “the function of another unconscious eye” that is simultaneously omnipresent and distant “as if it were a recollected vision” (Yoshitomo Takayuki, Yoshitomo Nara: I Don’t Mind, If You Forget Me, exh. cat., Yokohama Museum of Art, Yokohama, 2001, p. 171).

    Little Thinker draws from Nara’s long list of influences, from anime and manga to Renaissance painting, from literature to graffiti and punk music. An amalgamation of all of these cultural elements, Little Thinker ironically coalesces a careful tranquility with the nocturnal fervor with which Nara paints. According to Chambers’s description of the artist’s process, “Nara works alone in his studio, usually late at night, with punk rock screaming from speakers. He chain-smokes as he concentrates on channeling all of his past ghosts and present emotions into the deceptively simple face of his current subject. Each painting—each figure—is typically executed in the span of one night, capturing both a range of emotion and a specific mood” (Kristin Chambers, Yoshitomo Nara: Nothing Ever Happens, exh. cat., Museum of Contemporary Art, Cleveland, 2003, p. 26). In this unlikely combination of serenity and vigor, Nara arrived at an image of an intimate internal world characterized by both childlike wonder and shrewd contemplation. Redolent of the introspective potency encapsulated by Odilon Redon’s Closed Eyes, 1890, Musée d'Orsay, Paris and Michelangelo’s Dying Slave, 1513-1516, Louvre Museum, Paris, Little Thinker epitomizes the crucial shift Nara’s oeuvre took in 2000 and the genesis of a new artistic philosophy that still informs the painter’s work today.

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Property from a Distinguished American Collection

Little Thinker

signed in Japanese, titled and dated "little thinker 2000" on the reverse
acrylic on canvas
44 x 40 in. (111.8 x 101.6 cm.)
Painted in 2000.

Estimate
$3,000,000 - 4,000,000 

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Amanda Lo Iacono
Head of Evening Sale
New York
+1 212 940 1278

20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

New York Auction 14 November 2019