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May 10, 2020

From the Collection: Tadanori Yokoo

Our growing collection of posters by the avant-garde Japanese designer are portals to universes never before imagined.

Portraits of Yokoo included in his posters.

Post-war Japan was a catalyzing backdrop that shaped a generation of artists and designers, including the renowned Tadanori Yokoo (横尾 忠則). Over the span of two decades, the Emperor’s divinity had been absolved, the nation was demilitarized, and US military troops had occupied cities. In 1960, at the age of 24, Yokoo traveled 300 miles from Kobe to Tokyo, to the epicenter of this cultural whirlwind. Tokyo, now home to a rapidly increasing population of over 10 million, was preparing to host the 1964 Summer Olympics while reckoning with violent student protests and riots. There, Yokoo’s practice took root and would earn him a reputation for bridging high and low, pre- and post-modern, and Eastern and Western cultures, and challenging conventions by charging posters with intense emotion. Trailblazing across multiple media, Yokoo responded to absurdities of signs and symbols, tensions between seemingly opposing worlds, and existential questions of the self to offer works that are humorous, chaotic, and deeply autobiographical.

Yokoo’s emotive poster: Interesting, funny, sad, miserable, and at times, frightening

A poster by Yokoo generates its own magnetic field that will either repel or attract depending on the viewer’s tastes. The feelings his posters elicit are seldom of pleasure or the sublime, but rather of shock or confusion leading to deeper contemplation. Yokoo demands his viewers to sit with and embrace the full spectrum of uncomfortable feelings of humanity. When Yokoo exhibited Having Reached A Climax At 29, I Was Dead at a group exhibition in Tokyo’s Matsuya Ginza department store, he established his footing as a risk-taker, unafraid to surface what most people feared.

Made in Japan, Tadanori Yokoo, Having Reached A Climax At 29, I Was Dead, 1965. The bullet-train recurs throughout Yokoo’s work, whether as an illustration of the train itself, or a by way of a map of connecting railway lines. The Shinkansen bullet train was a 2 million yen project that connected regions far and wide to the heart of Tokyo at record-breaking speeds, and contributed to the city’s rapid population increase.

For one, he complicated the politics of symbols, and pushed limits of taboo topics like sex and death. At the center of the poster is a man, presumed to be Yokoo, hanging on a noose with a flower in hand. He foregrounds the rising sun, a symbol that was banned by American Allies during the war for its association with the Imperial military and its war crimes. In the bottom right corner is an obscene hand gesture representing sex, while opposite to it is a baby photo of Yokoo. His use of graphic symbols throughout his career explores the way emotions are embedded into symbols, as well as the way that a single form’s meaning can evolve over time. The combination of contrasting images, each embedded with its own story, with an acidic color palette that adds to the intensity of each work.

“What I love most is the absurd image which defies all explanations.” — Yokoo, in a Friedman Benda exhibition.

Yokoo’s point of view was sharpened by the many worlds of which he was a part, including his collaborations with avant-garde artists. He designed posters for, and even starred in, Japanese New Wave films,1 and at the same time he was a member of The Nippon Design Center alongside renowned modernists Ikko Tanaka and Shigeo Fukuda. When it came to designing advertisements, instead of prioritizing functionality and clarity, Yokoo favored dysfunctional overload and visual saturation. Instead of distancing himself from the artwork, he fully injects himself into his posters. By stylistically conflating personal expression and corporate advertisement, categories that were traditionally assumed to be separate, Yokoo earned a reputation for blurring boundaries between art and design worlds.2 He described his approach at a gallery talk in 1997:

Ads should be interesting, funny, sad, miserable, and at times, frightening. If you look at Japanese ads before the war, people’s feelings are shown as they are: without keeping a distance from or denying God, who exceeds the human intellect, or beings from space, most drew on the everyday or of things close to us. I think the desires, wishes, and prayers of today are no different from the past and should be included in ads. Now feelings are being eliminated from ads, awareness of self is being denied, and only functionality is given priority. I feel, however, that ads should become more independent from the product and have a universal role in people’s lives and feelings.3

1. Yokoo played the lead role and designed the poster for 1968 New Wave film, Diary of a Shinjuku Thief (新宿泥棒日記) directed by Nagisa Oshima.
2. This boundary-blurring also follows a historical framework of visual culture in Japan. In comparison to the West, printed matter in Japan, such as ukiyo-e, were seen both as commercial advertisements and treasured art objects, serving both functional and artistic purposes.
3. Gallery talk between Tadanori Yokoo and Michiki Shimamori, DNP Graphic Design Annual, 1997.
Are You Ready for Foods?, advertisement for a Chinese restaurant, 1989. 
Kachi Kachi Yama, animation, 1965.

Living in Tokyo, Yokoo was swept up by the hustle and bustle of cosmopolitan life and proliferation of mass media formats that were part of a large-scale government initiative to encourage consumption. Yokoo once said, “When I walk through the streets of Tokyo, it is not unusual for me to weave back and forth as if I were recovering from an illness.” The disorienting sensation that accompanied the bombardment, circulation, and importation of images, ads, and pop culture occupy Yokoo’s work. Dizzying patterns, neon colors, and the inundated repetition of imagery collaged together animate his posters, allowing them to break through the noise, or add to it, in an increasingly demanding media landscape. Unlike the many modernist designers of the 1960s who strove for simplicity, Yokoo enthusiastically channeled the chaos of the times into his work.

Between multiple worlds: Remixing and collaging cultures

Despite an economic boom that catapulted the nation towards a promising future, there were anxieties in Japan about the erasure of tradition at the expense of modernization. Artists, architects, and designers all grappled with these tensions between past and present, between East and West, in some shape or form. Yokoo addressed these tensions by mixing icons of pre- and post-modern Japan, by reappropriating images, or by transfusing Western and Eastern form and content.

Left: Strange Tales of the Bow Moon (珍説弓張月), 1971. The kabuki play adapts an original adventure story based on historical Japanese figures that was written by Takizawa Bakin and illustrated and printed by the ukiyo-e artist Katsushika Hokusai in 1807. Right: Kimono Shop, 1985.

Yokoo was one of many graphic designers who mined imagery from 17th-century Edo ukiyo-e prints, and would hand-trace scenes from the prints to transpose them onto his own posters.4 In his poster for a kabuki performance at The National Theater of Japan, Yokoo reproduces Hokusai-like waves and adjusts the saturation of ukiyo-e gradients to his own psychedelic tastes. The layout of the poster remixes that of pre-modern scroll paintings. Whereas aerial perspective is traditionally used to lay out a seamless story within one frame, Yokoo instead fragments different scenes in time and space. Each scene is labeled numerically, beginning with the samurai in the center, then zig-zagging across the poster to end at the white horse emerging out of the waves.

4. Michio Hayashi, “Tracing the Graphic in Postwar Japanese Art” in Tokyo 1955-1970: New Avant Garde, (Museum of Modern Art, 2012).

Kimono Shop, on the other hand, is just one of many examples that demonstrate Yokoo’s awareness of movements abroad by applying Western cubist forms to an Eastern subject matter. Yokoo includes geometric hiragana to spell out “kimono” (きもの), while scattering Latin letters throughout the rest of the composition like a puzzle. This poster references his childhood experiences of his adoptive father’s business of selling kimono fabrics. In a 2011 interview with the Japan Times, Yokoo recalled how his home was filled with “splendidly designed labels, placed on fabrics to be sold, that blended Western and Japanese motifs.”

Angel Parade (天使行進), 1996.
Word and Image exhibition poster for the Museum of Modern Art, 1968. Early in his career, Yokoo had the attention of international gallerists and art collectors. The MoMA’s first acquisition was in 1966, and Yokoo received further international acclaim when he was included in the 1968 exhibition Word and Image: Posters and Typography from the Graphic Design Collection of the Museum of Modern Art, 1879–1967. A few years later, the museum held Yokoo’s first American museum retrospective.

The act of collaging allows Yokoo to scramble images from both East and West to form a new universe as both a humorous gesture and visual pun. In Angel Parade, Western angels fly around the frame, and one is even holding a Japanese lucky cat figurine — a scene that could never exist in a Renaissance painting, but only in Yokoo’s world. A reclining golden Buddha faces a blazing rising sun, composed in the last posture to leave the world and enter Nirvana. There is also a smaller statue of a Buddha, substituted with Yokoo’s deadpan expression. By creating a space for disparate icons to coexist, Yokoo expands the representations of knowledge divided by cultures.

Beyond reality: Yokoo’s otherworldly visions

Much like dreams and nightmares that can invite the nonsensical, Yokoo’s visions are immune to reality’s grip on imagination and reason. His works are about and for himself: a space to relinquish the unconscious mind and reflect on questions about life, meaning, existence; a medium to reveal his desires, fears, memories, and collect what may have fallen through the cracks. Some answers are more cluttered, noisy, and chaotic, while others are composed, quiet, and meditative. Both coexist on the same plane where Yokoo’s past, present, and future meet.

Are You Ready For Fresh Air?, 1989.
5. Yasushi Kurabayashi, “Evolution of a Spiritual Vision (1971-1979)” in The Complete Posters of Tadanori Yokoo, (The National Museum of Art Osaka, 2010).

To transcend reality’s fixed lens, Yokoo prompts questions about space and place. Japanese art critic Yasushi Kurabashi describes Yokoo’s sense of perspective as extreme. He writes, “At times he disregards points of reference to create an open, limitless, even weightless feeling. His illusions impart the impression that perhaps we are not from ‘here’ but from somewhere else far, far away.”5 Are You Ready For Fresh Air? becomes a visual boundary where layers of two different worlds touch momentarily. One side is a sky blue mountain range, while the other is a blooming garden. The two are only separated by an intricate, golden frame, and reversed bitmapped text, as if an introduction to a video game. While the physical frame has often been used in painting to create windows to worlds, Yokoo’s frame as a modern-day trompe-l’oeil creates an experience that has not been imagined before. 

“I hope the age of material civilization will soon come to an end, being replaced by the spiritual civilization.” — Yokoo, in an interview with Whitewall, 2016.

Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam exhibition poster, 1974.
Toshi Ichiyanagi, Opera ‘From The Works Of Tadanori Yokoo’, 1969. A friend of Yokoo’s, Ichiyanagi was a composer and student of John Cage. This experimental album is dedicated to Yokoo’s works.

Following a car accident in 1970 which led Yokoo to be hospitalized for an extended period of time, he deepened his spirituality. He journeyed to India often, and learned the signs, symbols, and practices of Buddhism and Hinduism that populate many of his works, including his solo exhibition poster at Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum in 1974. In this poster, darkness compresses any sense of depth, and a geologic crust borders the bottom, grounding the viewer on a celestial body. Symbols of the Vajravarahi mandala and Garuda mudra in bright colors resist the dark matter, aligning onto the same axis of a beacon of light. The Jibo Kannon, the Goddess of Mercy, hovers in a golden orb, and looks down at Yokoo, who is at the bottom left, skin pink and lips rouge. Although a static image, his body and expression makes it seem as though he has just entered the scene. He gazes behind himself, as if he is about to embark on a spiritual journey, wondering whether he’ll be accompanied into his sacred, inexplicable world.

Florence Fu is a writer and type designer in New York. She holds a B.A. in Art History and a B.S. in Journalism from Northwestern University, and is a graduate of Type West’s year-long type design certificate program. She is a contributor to Letterform Archive and Sharp Type Co.