Japanese artists, as they age, often benefit from the “Hokusai Effect.” This is the notion, based on a famous quote from the great ukiyo-e (genre painting) artist, that they only attain real greatness well beyond the normal retirement age for other professions.
“Nothing I did before the age of 70 was worthy of attention,” the quote runs, ending with the ambition that, “at 100 and 30, 40 or more I will have reached the stage where every dot and every stroke I paint will be alive.”
The sad truth, however, is that most artists achieve their best work well short of their 140th birthday — their later work is often characterized by a loss of energy and inventiveness and a lazy reliance on the successful formulas of the past.
Now aged 72, Tadanori Yokoo is at the stage of his career where he is benefiting from the Hokusai Effect. As one of Japan’s most famous and prolific artists, there is a collective interest among sections of the art world in believing that his already substantial career has yet to peak, and in perpetuating his considerable international reputation.
The recently opened exhibition at the Setagaya Art Museum, “Tadanori Yokoo: Be Adventurous!” looks over his lengthy career and pulls out all the stops to reinforce positive, open-ended perceptions. Rather than honestly admitting to be a retrospective and focusing on the nitty-gritty of analyzing a lengthy career that has now largely run its course, the exhibition attempts to recast his works as part of an exciting, long running and unfinished narrative.
While this may sound like a great idea on paper or in curatorial discussions, the conceit doesn’t work in practice. Yokoo’s work abounds in continuities, connections and repetitions, but none of these are of a narrative nature, certainly not in the Aristotelian sense of an organic story. Instead, the picture that emerges is the mundanely familiar one of a successful artist who has successfully navigated the winds of artistic fashion through periods of intense production, interspersed with breaks and changes of direction.
The exhibition includes plenty of his 1960s graphic-design work and even a room full of superfluous parodies of the already amusing paintings of Henri Rousseau. But the bulk of the exhibition is made up of large, often crudely painted canvases, populated with surrealistic mishmashes of pop culture images.
Many of these look like the work of somebody who has taken books of Freudian dream interpretation a little too literally. A clear example is “Reminiscence of Love” (1994), where the sexual curiosity, confusion, and development of three young boys is crudely sign-posted by dildos of varying sizes, a dog’s anus vividly highlighted in pink, and a giant orifice in the sky. The three young boys are also used as a kind of framing device, positioned so as to look into the painting along with the viewer, a device which is reused in other works.