September 25th, 2011

The Complete Posters of
Tadanori Yokoo seen at the
National Museum of Art,
Osaka in August 2010.

Tadanori Yokoo

“Having Reached a Climax at the Age of 29, I Was Dead.” This, in English and so addressed to the world, is what is written on, and is the subject of, the first poster in the exhibit which is from 1965. It is a provocation. This placement in the exhibition. And the fist signing a fuck you. And the little man hanging from a rope holding a little flaccid bouquet. But it’s also pretty hard to argue with this assessment once you’ve seen everything else. Not only, or even mostly, as a comment on Yokoo’s work. In many ways it is not simply his climax, but the climax of a cultural moment. He says it first, claims it first and so is able to own it and sidestep it at once. That he would express this sentiment, that he would embody it, strikes me as much more American or European than Japanese. Perhaps that’s another reason he said it in English. The Japanese way is usually defined more by incremental and persistent attention to an accrual of details that almost imperceptibly deliver a transformation. There does not seem to be such emphasis on originality and sudden breakthroughs. But here in this climax period, there is on display such a great will to sudden change. Or if not that, a confluence of exuberance. The personal and the social at once pressing out at the boundaries with all of the force of knowledge and emotion disgorged from pent up wells. The posters in this period were printed in several colors often including both metallic and fluorescent inks. The care and expense suggests an agreed upon importance for the posters as artifacts in and of themselves. At some point later in life Yokoo switched to painting which is a broader more open ended category. But it was his enlarging of the confines of the smaller category that makes his work great. It is the tremendous sense of life overflowing its bounds.

It is this climax period, the mid-sixties, that was given over to the first room. Most of the posters here were allowed a straight-forward respectable presentation, hung in one row at about eye level. In contrast to rooms that focus on other periods where the posters pile up and cover much of the wall space or are given innovative treatments like being suspended on wires in rows in a half-lit room. Most of these posters, the climax period, are pretty well known. They feel a little less cluttered at full size. And I was able to see the care and respect with which they were produced. An amazing balance between the handcrafted and the mass produced. There is a great sense of both the laborers and the machines. The fingers and eyes pulling the paper and corralling the ink just as much as sucker feet and cylinders. It’s hard to imagine these regal and pampered ephemera out there on their own in the elements.

Additionally suggestive of how the posters were constructed, there were a few tabloid sized paste-ups or sketches of a few of the posters from this period. This evidence points to them having simply been drawn by Yokoo. Rather than a more modern seeming approach like assembling them from bits and pieces of available materials culled from diverse sources. The cut-up method, say. Or collage. Instead, it looks very much like he composed most of the work in his mind and then set it all down on paper with a pen, then added photos to fit these drawings. It reminded me a lot of the Stenberg brothers, particularly how they often drew portions of their compositions to look like photos when in fact no actual photos were being used. I think the explanation for this is that they couldn’t afford the processing. But it seems equally plausible that this method granted them a more fluent control over their work. This may also be the case with Yokoo. Though he did use actual photos in his compositions, he seems to have relied on drawing to sketch and arrange them.

Aside from the Stenberg brothers, and Western designers contemporary with Yokoo like Push Pin, another great echo sounds out from the butsudan (found in most Japanese homes). Butsudan are cabinets that serve almost as a miniature church or temple within the home. Or the parts that one faces, like the chancel. They are often about the size and dimensions of a poster. They vary, but there are carvings and figures, patterns, gold paint, radiant lines. And with the addition of offerings — fruit or special sweets in their packaging ,a can of beer, flowers, photos — there is the personal and mundane mixed with the spiritual, or more formal and enduring parts of the construction. So they form a variety of compositions similar in their complexity and mix of references to many of Yokoo’s posters. Particularly of those famous ones of the mid sixties. Although some of the same structural and visual themes, drawn from the butsudan, recur throughout Yokoo’s career. Some of this kind of thing is evident as recently as in the poster for the exhibition.

In fact many of the recent posters have a sense of that time. A revisiting of some of the old habits. Probably partly because they worked for him. But he may also be engaged an effort to focus on that early period in order to create some distance. In some ways to seal it off and define the lines of that identity or that part of his identity. Since he is now applying attention to his painting, he may want this newer vocation to be seen in contrast to the poster work. He may actually be content to leave that climax period where it is and to seek a new kind of focus on himself for his current work.

The earlier work, from the fifties and early sixties was very good, tending toward modernist simplicity and restraint. It seemed to be headed in the same direction as work of the same period by Ikko Tanaka or Yusaku Kamekura. It may have become just as accomplished had the erratic glimmers been refined and corralled instead of encouraged toward an at once more personal and cosmopolitan accomplishment which has come to cast a much broader shadow than the works of his contemporaries.

The work in the seventies was experimental but without the same force as the climax period and is in line with a lot of what you might see on record covers of the time. Alluding to some spirituality with the use of water and rocks and volcanos and surrealism and naked women. There is still a good deal to admire, of course. But my attention lost some edge.

I found myself drawn in again with the work that is closer to the present. Not just because of the revisiting of old themes. But because the work is more direct and graphic. As with all of Yokoo’s best work it is complicated and forceful at the same time. There is a sense of a very powerful and straightforward communication of something that is itself strange or unclear. There is an emotional declaration that everyone seems to understand but for which few if any words can be found. Even to simply describe the images.

There are examples of this, really, in all the periods. It would have been a very large and powerful show to have exhibited a curated set of the posters. But the show that was put up with all of its ups and downs and overabundance is probably in its own way the best of Yokoo Tadanori. The best expression of him as a designer. He is like that in his work. He is occasionally boring or difficult or unclear. But he is also too much and challenging and loud and invigorating.


Williams Trent