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Tadanori Yokoo: An artist by design

For Tadanori Yokoo, there was one precise moment when he switched from graphic to fine art

by Edan Corkill

Staff Writer

In conversation, Tadanori Yokoo jumps nimbly between the past and the present. One moment he’s watching the sky glow red as bombs rain down on Kobe during World War II. The next he’s riding in a taxi with Yukio Mishima. And then he’s back in the present again, here at his studio in Tokyo’s Setagaya Ward, discussing his latest painting.

It has always been that way for this 75-year-old who, in the 1960s, became Japan’s most famous graphic designer before abruptly deciding, in 1981, to become a painter. Not only his conversation but everything he has produced to date — his graphic-art posters, his fine-art paintings — draws on his memories.

Yokoo was born in 1936 in Nishiwaki, Hyogo Prefecture, and was adopted by relatives — a doting elderly couple who had run a kimono fabric-making company.

A keen drawer as a child, Yokoo — despite having no formal training — gravitated naturally toward graphic design.

After marrying young, at age 21 — he now has two grown-up children who are both active in the arts — Yokoo moved en famille to Tokyo in 1960, just as the city was in the midst of violent student riots against the Japan-U.S. Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security, which had been signed that January.

There, he eventually made his mark by pushing in the opposite direction away from Modernism, which was then the dominant design trend.

Instead of following Modernism’s mantra of simplicity and function-over-form, Yokoo introduced into his commercial posters and advertising graphic elements from his childhood: His text was reminiscent of the old kimono fabric labels of his childhood; his graphics were influenced by children’s card games from the prewar period.

Yokoo’s original approach won him fans in Japan’s avant-garde circles — the locale of creators such as the filmmaker Nagisa Oshima, the butoh dancer Tatsumi Hijikata and the playwright Shuji Terayama, for whom he made posters for theatrical productions.

He also gained a following overseas — being feted with a solo exhibition at New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in 1972. It was the first time that a living graphic designer had been given a solo exhibition at the hallowed institution.

A decade later, Yokoo surprised his fans by switching his focus away from graphic design. In what became known as his “painter declaration,” he announced that he would henceforth become a fine artist — a painter.

He didn’t stop doing design work completely, but since then he has spent much of his time in front of his canvases — mainly at his Tokyo studio.

Yokoo’s approach to painting is a kind of wrestling engagement with his own life experiences. Colors occur to him, vague scenes — a crossroads, or roads diverging at a Y-intersection — and as he starts painting from that vision, he begins to recognize memories and emotions from deep in his past.

Yokoo is one of the stars at this year’s Yokohama Triennale, the giant multi-venue, three-month art event that kicked off in the port city on Aug. 6.

He was busy applying the finishing touches to his exhibits when The Japan Times visited him at his studio late last month — but was nonetheless happy to take time out to make a conversational dive into his fascinating past.

What is your first memory of art?

For as long as I can remember I enjoyed drawing, particularly making copies of existing images.

What kinds of images?

Mostly pictures in children’s books. I had a lot of picture books and they had illustrations of historical characters like the warrior Miyamoto Musashi (1584-1645). I enjoyed copying those.

When did you start shifting from making drawings as copies to making drawings from your imagination?

As a child, I never did. For me, drawing was copying. Back then, I never intended to become an artist myself.

But you ended up choosing the path of graphic design, which is close to art. How did that happen?

Well, I needed to make a living. I was actually adopted by the Yokoo family and my adoptive mother and father were already quite old. I needed to generate income, so I started working straight after high school — first at a printing company, then at the Kobe Shimbun newspaper and then at an advertising agency.

Were you doing design work at those companies?

That’s right. I just learned on the job.

Eventually you decided to go to Tokyo. Why did you make that move?

Well, the reaction I got to my design work was good, so I kept it up. I came to Tokyo with the advertising agency in 1960, and shortly afterward I moved to a dedicated design company.

In what way was the reaction to your work good?

Well I entered my designs in exhibitions and they won prizes. And then I gradually realized that this might be a good job to do. And then I came to Tokyo and at the time what lay behind everything that was being done was this idea of “modern design.”

Do you mean the very simple, function-over-form style of design, where all decorative elements were excised?

Yes. I had a very strong yearning for this modern design, but at the same time I had been raised in a kind of premodern age — a nativist kind of climate, where the old ways remained in place. So for me, in order to enter this world of modern design, there were many things inside me that I had to discard.

But at the same time, I had this lingering doubt about whether I really should be doing something simply as a job or if I should try to do it as a work of art. You know, it’s all very well to be in sync with the trends of the day, but is there something of yourself being expressed in the design? Is it really your own design or not?

So then I went through this process of thinking that I should try to incorporate those premodern or nativist elements into modern design. And it was from that point that what is really my own design was born.

What kind of old-style, decorative elements were you bringing into your work?

My adoptive father had been a kimono-fabric wholesaler when he was still working. So in our house there were lots of the labels that they would put on the fabrics when they sold them, and those labels had wonderful designs — designs that blended Western and Japanese motifs. They were sort of slightly tacky, mysterious. I guess now you would call them “kitsch.”

There were also cards for menko (a children’s game in which wooden cards are slapped down in order to overturn an opponent’s cards), and those cards had pictures of samurai and film stars and sports stars.

Those kinds of things formed the visual language with which I was surrounded. I tried to bring all of that baggage into the framework of Modernism.

How was your work viewed in the design community? The company you joined, Nippon Design Center, was run by a leading figure in Japanese Modernist design, Ikko Tanaka (1930-2002), and you had deliberately sought out that company. How did Tanaka and the others there react to your work?

What I was doing constituted quite a critique of design as it existed at the time. I was going back and picking up all these things that Modernist design had discarded. People in the design community tended to see my work as “anti-design.”

The people in my company? Well, they had all grown up in the same kind of environment as me. I think for them, it was probably sort of like being reminded of a terrible nightmare! But it wasn’t that we totally disagreed.

For me, incorporating those things into my work was actually a way to get them out of my system. By confronting that old stuff, by putting it out there, I was trying to discard it, too.

I was told by Yukio Mishima once that there were three things that he and I had in common, and one of those was that we sought to deny nativism. But he said, “I denied nativism by expunging it. You deny it by depicting it head-on.”

What were the other two things you had in common?

He also said that the thing Japanese are worst at is black humor, but that my work had black humor. The third thing was that we both had very thin wrists. And he grabbed my wrist as we were sitting in a taxi. That was his black humor at work there!

What was the mood of the time back when you moved to Tokyo in 1960, which is remembered as the year of riots against the renewal of the Japan-U.S. security treaty.

We weren’t students at the time, and I hadn’t been to university at all. I had gone straight from high school to the printing company, so I had never experienced being a university student and it was hard to relate to their frustrations.

Of course, I sort of got it because I had always had the same rebellious approach to aesthetics — to Modernist design. But we were working at the Nippon Design Center, and we had contracts with big Japanese companies. In truth, it would have been totally disingenuous for us to try to be antiestablishment.

But we did all end up going to the Diet building to be a part of a demonstration. Yusaku Kamekura, who became famous for designing the (1964) Tokyo Olympics posters, was a director at the company, and he made a placard for us to take. It had a white dove on a blue background — the peace symbol. And so off we headed into the streets. I don’t think there was one of us who had thought seriously about what we were doing.

It was a wild time. We had the rightwingers behind us and the leftwing students in front of us, and we were there in the middle holding a picture of a dove. They’d come to us from both sides and say, “Which side are you on?” They couldn’t tell, because we didn’t have any text written on the placard.

But you were graphic designers — so of course you were trying to express yourselves with graphics.

That’s right. We’d reply: “Look at it! What do you think it means?”

Quite soon after that, you started seeking out work yourself, and I believe you went to the photographer Eiko Hosoe when you heard he was doing a book with Mishima. Were you getting sick of doing corporate work?

I actually never really thought that corporate work suited me.

You felt you should put something of yourself in the work?

Yes. Without that, I was just borrowing from other people. That was when I started looking for something original, and I went back to those premodern elements I was talking about earlier.

I was naturally attracted to people like Hosoe, and also the playwright Shuji Terayama, because I felt that they were working with a kind of freedom that I wanted. They were artists. And I realized, “Ah, yes, this is just what I want to be doing.” Because I was expressing my own feelings in my work, they accepted me, too.

Your output with the people you just mentioned is now among your best-known work. What was it like working with, for example, Terayama?

He was really good at getting people involved in his projects. He made his problem your problem. He wouldn’t say, “I want you to make a poster,” he’d say, “Let’s make a theater group together.” The next thing you knew, you were a member of the group — and of course that meant you didn’t get paid!

Did you make the posters after reading the scripts?

Of course not. He didn’t finish his scripts until two or three days before he put the plays on.

He would come and tell me the seeds of his ideas, and as he spoke to me what he was actually doing was making the play then and there. I’d say, “That’s interesting,” and he’d say, “Really?” — and then that would become part of the play.

That was one of his talents; an ability to get people to share his dream and work with him. It was useful for me, too, seeing how he worked — seeing how he appropriated other people’s ideas and made something new.

Tell me about your experiences overseas. You went to New York in 1967 and received a very positive reception. What was that like?

It was surprising. Within the design world back in Japan I was viewed as a kind of outsider. So, to go to America and find support not so much in the design world but in the art world over there was great.

It all happened very quickly. There was a commercial gallery in New York that had been buying my posters. I visited them on the spur of the moment during that trip in 1967, and they said, “Wow, you’ve come at the right time. We are planning to do an exhibition of your work next week.” I was like, “Really?”

Anyway, that gallery specialized in posters by pop artists. I was the only graphic designer they had, so I was a bit apprehensive. But when they did the show, the MoMA curators came and they bought the whole lot.

They bought all the works in the show?

All of them. They paid $100 for each of them. That was the same price that Andy Warhol’s “Marilyn Monroe” posters were selling for back then.

Earlier, you said that Mishima pointed out your black humor. I think that would have been something the Americans appreciated in your art.

I … Really? In Japan, in theater or film or whatever, Japanese tend not to understand black humor. It seems to be just the way Japanese are. Even if I try to make works that I think are funny, no one laughs at them. They will fold their arms and look sternly at them. Japanese are like that.

But I think more people overseas would laugh. I wonder if one of the reasons your work was successful abroad was because they got your black humor.

Aah. That’s the first time anyone has ever said that.

Really?

Yes. The Japanese think that artwork only succeeds overseas if it has elements of Japan in it — a kind of Japonisme. I asked the MoMA curators about that and they said that wasn’t true. They said that my work reflected the age, history, the psychological state of the day. I think that humor existed in the psychology of that time. Maybe there was a kind of humor that existed beyond being American or Japanese.

And it was in America that you made the decision to become an artist — at a Pablo Picasso exhibition, I believe.

With graphic design you have the client who is requesting a particular job. The client gives us — the designers — a number of conditions and requirements and then we proceed with the job on the basis of those. But doing something to meet someone else’s requirements is very different from doing something to meet your own requirements.

One day I realized that I should follow my own. The day I had that realization was the day I went to see an exhibition of work by Picasso at MoMA.

Was that a very clear-cut transition?

Yes. It was instantaneous. It was extraordinary. When I entered that exhibition I was a graphic designer and when I left I was a painter. It was that quick. I was struck by how his whole life seemed to be led for creative ends — for self-expression.

Tell me about how you make your paintings. Do you decide what you will paint in advance?

Only very vaguely. I don’t decide the composition.

As I try putting various different colored lines on the white canvas, I then think, and then fill in the colors. Then I will suddenly jump from one side of the painting to the other, and suddenly think “No, this is no good” — and then without realizing it I might find myself doing a different style of painting to what I had done before. Then I might think, “OK, let’s make the whole thing consistent with that style of painting.”

So from moment to moment the work is changing. And it’s not me who is causing those changes. It is the painting itself. It’s like I am feeling the painting, sympathizing with the painting, adapting to the painting. I’m collaborating with the painting. I feel that very strongly these days.

But what about that vague idea with which the process starts. Where does that come from?

I wonder that myself. I guess it comes from my own philosophy, my own thoughts. It’s my outlook on life, my outlook on death. It’s everything. All of it is blended in there together, but it is all separate too. All those things are elements flying around in my mind. And sometimes those things come into alignment.

I guess the real foundation is my own experience, my own memories. They are the ultimate source of all those thoughts.

When those things appear in your paintings, do you immediately recognize their sources?

Aah, yes, I do. As I paint them I remember them. “Ah, yes, this was when I was a child and it was pitch black and I got scared and ran home.”

And when I recognize the source, then I might make the painting an even deeper black. I gain confidence in what I am doing. It’s like a link has been formed between that time in the past and the time when you are there in the studio painting. The past and the present become one.

What else has appeared in your painting like that before?

When I was a child, when I was still a boy, then women were still a kind of a mystery, something unknown. The paintings of nudes I’ve made, where the body is colored red — those paintings have nothing to do with an adult sexual desire. It is an expression of that feeling I had as a child that women were a mystery.

Do you have a good memory — do you remember a lot?

No, not at all. My mind’s memory is terrible. I forget things all the time. But there are things that my body remembers. My body seems to have a good memory. That fear of darkness as a child, or the fear of women — they are all remembered in my body, not my mind.

Tell me about the works you are doing for the Yokohama Triennale.

Last August the paintings started to become very dark, very black. I had done some night scenes before, but what I started painting wasn’t a scene at night, it was a black landscape.

This canvas here I started painting in January. Now, when people look at it, they say: “Ah, is this the town in energy-saving mode?” I am like, “Well, if that’s the way you want to see it then that is not wrong. But that was not the intention.”

When this is shown at the Triennale I’m sure people will think it is about the earthquake and everything that has happened.

Will your experiences of the March 11 earthquake and post-quake Japan eventually find their way into your paintings?

Possibly. I’ve already made a lot of paintings depicting the destruction of cities — in the “Y-intersection” series and so on. I’ve painted scenes of destroyed buildings, burned-out buildings. I don’t know exactly where those images came from, but maybe they were connected with what was then still in the future.

I’ve always had this strong sense of destruction, since I was a child.

One of your poster collections is titled “Posthumous Works.” And when you were 29 you also made a famous poster depicting your own suicide at that age. Were those things connected with that sense of destruction?

Ah, well; the idea that your own life, your own body, will eventually meet with extinction is the greatest instance of destruction, isn’t it?

That’s where the greatest fear lies, so with those works, in a sense I was trying to simulate what it will be like when I do die. I thought that if I become one with that fear, if I confront that fear by absorbing it fully within me, then it will no longer be frightening.

Are there any other fears left inside you that you still have to confront?

Once you succeed in transcending one fear, there is always another waiting for you — just out of sight. Just when I thought I’d got over all of them, then suddenly I’d feel a tapping on my shoulder and it would be, “We’re still here …”

And the blackness of these paintings was the same? Another fear?

The blackness is the same. That fearsome darkness I experienced as a child.

For a while I painted only red paintings. They came out of a memory I had from when I was in primary school, when I was out in the country in Hyogo Prefecture. Over the mountains in the east was Kobe and Akashi. And when the bombs dropped over there the sky would turn red. That color itself became scary. And that fear was imprinted in my body, too. It wasn’t knowledge, it wasn’t a concept.

And that eventually came out in paintings.

It wasn’t like I consciously decided to depict that memory. I just felt I wanted to paint something red, and then gradually all those elements, all those things left inside me came back and found their way into the paintings. And then I realized what it was I was depicting.

So those fears that await you, are actually things that existed in your past.

That’s right. I’m sure there are many more hidden away inside me. As long as I still have those memories, then I will continue painting.

Yokohama Triennale continues through Nov. 6 at the Yokohama Museum of Art, the NYK Waterfront Warehouse (BankART Studio NYK) and surrounding areas. Set tickets are ¥1,800 for adults, ¥1,200 for university students and ¥700 for high school students. Younger children can enter for free. For more details, visit yokohamatriennale.jp.