August 7, 2011

JAPAN: Portrait of an artist by design

TOKYO, Japan / The Japan Times / Life in Japan / August 7, 2011

Work in progress: "I'm sure people will think it is about the earthquake and everything that has happened," graphic-designer-turned-artist Tadanori Yokoo said of this dark urban landscape he was painting at his studio in Tokyo last month. Yoshiaki Miura Photo

CLOSE-UP: 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.

Yokoo's 1965 silkscreen-on-paper work "Tadanori Yokoo"

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.

Click here to enjoy more of this JAPAN TIMES feature

(C) The Japan Times
Credit: Reports and photographs are property of owners of intellectual rights.
Seniors World Chronicle, a not-for-profit, serves to chronicle and widen their reach.