Tradition Goes Pop

revels in the electric style and vivid colours of Japanese psych-pop artist Tadanori Yokoo

Image: Doktor Mabuse

Aspects of Tadanori Yokoo’s 1960s poster art are redolent of bold, graphic adverts – coloured blocks and eclectic details, teeming with a heady range of bright images, textures and styles. This striking, effervescent approach has seen Yokoo become one of Japan’s most famous living artists, where he commands something of a cult following, but he is nigh on unknown elsewhere. At first glance, his posters appear to be chock-full of fun colours and soaring visuals, slotting neatly into the Andy Warhol school of Pop Art, with a heavy dash of Peter Max psychedelia. But look more closely and the manifold Japanese

elements jump out: geishas, samurais, rising suns, Hokusai-esque waves, Shinto Torii
gates, blossoms, Mount Fuji and lengths of Kanji calligraphy.
His posters diametrically opposed the clean, minimalist principles of modernism, which was the prevailing mood of Japanese design at the time. Rather, as Yokoo put it “I started fusing my innate Japanese aesthetic with American Pop Art”. So we find a brash, quality in his posters, with the stripes of kaleidoscopic lines and colours, but alongside this
is the influence of traditional woodblock ukiyo-e prints. The flatness of ukiyo-e prints and the flat, albeit bright, colours and aesthetic of pop art complement each other in a strikingly natural way, and this ability to effortlessly fuse together diverse visual styles is a testament to Yokoo’s talent and endurance. Indeed, in 1972 he was honoured with a solo show at MoMA.
His posters are graphic grab-bags and Yokoo is something of a visual magpie. The eclecticism of his aesthetic is reflected in the various techniques he experimented with, from collage and illustration to re-appropriating found photos and images, in the spirit of Dadaist collage artists.

Image: Youtube

However, behind the playful colours and shapes, there’s a darker intensity to his work, which he’s explored more in later life through his paintings. For centuries, Japan was a tightly closed country, keen to keep contact with the outside world to a minimum, and as such alternative ideas were imbued with a hefty dose of novelty and unfamiliarity. Japanese post-war society underwent rapid change and westernisation, and Yokoo’s work reflects the attempts to embrace and represent fresh, alternative influences in line with distinct Japanese tradition. You can see an unsettled, frantic element in his work, which is especially evident in his animations (which are available for your surreal viewing pleasure on Youtube). Rainbow-hued images flash and elide, the sharp editing colliding with the crackling fissures, stains and bursts of light produced by worn-in 60s film reels. In KISS KISS KISS 1964 Yokoo uses comic book images of kissing couples, the film opening to the strains of Dean Martin’s classic song ‘Kiss’. But the song vanishes, replaced with the unearthly, unnerving sounds of a theremin. We see the images shift, as different colours, rhythms and rotations manipulate them, and the apparent bliss of a kiss is questioned and distorted.

Image: Galaxy fm

After a trip to India in the 1970s, Yokoo was influenced by a different kind of Eastern aesthetic and his work was suffused with psychedelic mysticism. And as any psych-pop artist worth their salt would, he worked with various musicians, including The Beatles, Santana, Emerson, Lake and Palmer and Miles Davis, designing posters and album covers. Yokoo became a renowned figure in the 60s and 70s avant-garde art world, commercially successful but always innovative and insightful. His work is simultaneously very much a product of its time, but by fusing it with Japanese aesthetic tradition, Yokoo’s zesty visual feasts just keep on giving.

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