Contemporary Reflections on the Celestial

The current installation in Marquand Mather Court, the Museum’s gallery of contemporary art, revolves around two important paintings currently on loan to the Museum—Tan Tan Bo–In Communication (2014) by Takashi Murakami and The Little Star Dweller (2006) by Yoshitomo Nara. Although both monumentally scaled works are painted by leading artists of Japan’s Neo Pop movement and feature up-close portraits of their protagonists, they differ greatly in tone, palette, and subject matter. One is bright, chaotic, and post-apocalyptic, while the other is dark, quiet, and ethereal.

Yoshitomo Nara (Japanese, born 1959), The Little Star Dweller, 2006. Acrylic and glitter on canvas, 227.3 × 181.3 cm. Collection of Mitchell and Joleen Julis. © Yoshitomo NaraOur challenge therefore became how to create an installation that could orbit around these two stunning but thematically distinct works. Inspiration, as usual, was found in an unexpected place—the sleepy farmland of New Jersey. Tucked away in a nearby town are several Chelseaworthy galleries filled with an impressive private collection that heavily features works by renowned contemporary photographers. It was a selection of Thomas Ruff pieces that inspired Katherine Bussard, Peter C. Bunnell Curator of Photography, and me to use the Murakami and the Nara as a means to investigate notions of the celestial. In Ruff’s ma.r.s. and Stars series, the photographer appropriates information and images from NASA, the European Southern Observatory, and other sources, reinterpreting them through an artistic lens and calling attention to how our understanding of the universe relies on the coexistence of science and fiction.

Thomas Ruff (German, born 1958), Sterne 18h 12 m / -20°, 1990. Chromogenic print, 257.7 × 186.6 cm. Collection of Peter Josten and Sam Trower. © 2016 Thomas Ruff / Artists Rights Society, New York / VG Bild-Kunst, GermanyFrom representational to conceptual, the works on view reveal how artists are exploring the cosmos, the stars, and the unknown. Pat Steir’s large-scale painting Winter Sky (2002), for example, engulfs viewers, encouraging them to physically engage with the infinite universe while contemplating its ephemerality. Coin Noir (1977) by James Rosenquist sets up a tension between the macrocosmic and the microcosmic, while Vik Muniz reflects on society’s attraction to the stars of the silver screen in Elizabeth Taylor (2004). As Stephen Hawking suggests—and these artists demonstrate—it is worthwhile to always “Look up at the stars and not down at your feet. Try to make sense of what you see and wonder about what makes the universe exist. Be curious.”


Heather Cammarata-Seale

Curatorial Associate, Modern and Contemporary Art