The Daily Heller: Japanese Art That Pops With Energy and Homage

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Most Americans know the work of Tadanori Yokoo. His pyrotechnic design (notably posters and books) reflects and transcends the psychedelic ’60s and ’70s. Born in 1936, he is one of Japan’s most internationally recognized avant garde theater design and graphic artists. Yokoo’s early work shows the influence of Push Pin Studio, especially in his explosion of bright colors and fanciful forms.

However, this is not a story about Yokoo, but rather a kindred Japanese artist, coincidentally born in 1936, who is less known to Yokoophiles here in the United States—though I predict not for long. In less than a month, Keiichi Tanaami will get some overdue attention.

A leading figure in the postwar Japanese art scene and progenitor of the Japanese Pop and Superflat movements, 86-year-old Tanaami will premiere an “optically dazzling suite” of new large-scale paintings at the eclectic New York City gallery Venus Over Manhattan. Keiichi Tanaami: Manhattan Universe (Sept. 8–Oct. 8) will be a surefire eye-popper thanks to Tanaami‘s energetic experiments with pictorial form, ignited by the fusion of Japanese and American cultural influences (including references to ’60s psychedelics and underground comics by the likes of Rick Griffin and Victor Moscoso) as well as his signature intensity of color, relentless graphic power, and unique windowed vignettes. The gallery will also present animations and a dozen monumental canvases, providing a taste of the artist’s European museum survey in 2023/2024.

Keiichi Tanaami, Indication and Emergence, 2021. Pigmented ink, acrylic silkscreen medium, crushed glass, glitter, acrylic paint on canvas; triptych, each panel: 78 3/4 x 39 3/8 in (200 x 100 cm). Overall: 78 3/4 x118 1/4 in (200 x 300 cm). © 2022 Keiichi Tanaami. Courtesy of the artist and NANZUKA, Tokyo, and Venus Over Manhattan, New York.
Keiichi Tanaami, Ecstasy of Eyes, 2022. Pigmented ink, acrylic silkscreen medium, crushed glass, glitter, acrylic paint on canvas; diptych, each panel: 57 x 39 3/8 in (145 x 100 cm). Overall: 57 x 78 3/4 in (145 x 200 cm). © 2022 Keiichi Tanaami. Courtesy of the artist and NANZUKA, Tokyo, and Venus Over Manhattan, New York.
Keiichi Tanaami, Fragment of Time, 2022. Pigmented ink, acrylic silkscreen medium, crushed glass, glitter, acrylic paint on canvas; triptych, each panel: 80 3/8 x 39 3/8 in (204 x 100 cm). Overall: 80 3/8 x 118 1/8 in (204 x 300 cm). © 2022 Keiichi Tanaami. Courtesy of the artist and NANZUKA, Tokyo, and Venus Over Manhattan, New York.

As the gallery notes, “Rising to prominence in the 1960s, Tanaami’s work registered the influence of manga imagery, the Neo-Dada movement in Japan,” and the experience of his childhood during the Second World War. References to the war are a recurring motif in Tanaami’s work, which often features images of air raids, flares, and blasts of white light from the detonation of explosives. His paintings are also deeply influenced by his childhood memories of kamishibai—public theater productions for Japanese children. Tanaami’s work is notable for the manner in which it juxtaposes commercial imagery from Western culture with traditionally Japanese graphic styles, including manga and woodblock printing.

“Exploring the tension between disparate forces, such as the East and the West, violence and innocence, and commercial imagery and high art, Tanaami has emerged as a form-giver for subsequent generations of working artists.”

Keiichi Tanaami, Adventure of the Eyes 29, 2022. Digital canvas print, magazine pages, ink, acrylic paint, rhinestone on canvas; 76 1/2 x 51 1/4 in (194 x 130 cm). © 2022 Keiichi Tanaami. Courtesy of the artist and NANZUKA, Tokyo, and Venus Over Manhattan, New York.

Tanaami’s work for this exhibition is not, however, entirely this explosion of pop, but includes a completely different, if ironic, direction in his current output. During COVID, as he writes in the gallery’s materials: “I spent my days idly. … I was overcome by the feeling that I had to do something.” Tanaami became extremely fond of making reproductions of Picasso’s 1943 painting Mother and Child (Mère et enfant).

“I feel that the simple process of copying colors and shapes with no need to engage in any form of trial or error is similar to the practice of sutra copying that I once had the opportunity to experience. I was surprised that painting solely as a means to find one’s peace of mind, with no fixed intentions, deadlines, or plans for exhibition, would lead to such mindful satisfaction. This delightful period is still ongoing, and today I again find myself obsessing over Picasso, all the while setting aside the projects I have been asked to work on.” The result is as though a totally different artist painted these exciting homages.

Keiichi Tanaami, Pleasure of Picasso—Mother and Child No. 130, 2020-2022. Acrylic on canvas; 16 1/4 x 12 1/2 in (41 x 32 cm). © 2022 Keiichi Tanaami. Courtesy of the artist and NANZUKA, Tokyo, and Venus Over Manhattan, New York.
Keiichi Tanaami, Pleasure of Picasso—Mother and Child No. 137, 2020-2022. Acrylic on canvas; 16 1/4 x 12 1/2 in (41 x 32 cm). © 2022 Keiichi Tanaami. Courtesy of the artist and NANZUKA, Tokyo, and Venus Over Manhattan, New York.
Keiichi Tanaami, Pleasure of Picasso—Mother and Child No. 145, 2020-2022. Acrylic on canvas; 16 1/4 x 12 1/2 in (41 x 32 cm). © 2022 Keiichi Tanaami. Courtesy of the artist and NANZUKA, Tokyo, and Venus Over Manhattan, New York.
Keiichi Tanaami, Pleasure of Picasso—Mother and Child No. 149, 2020-2022. Acrylic on canvas; 16 1/4 x 12 1/2 in (41 x 32 cm). © 2022 Keiichi Tanaami. Courtesy of the artist and NANZUKA, Tokyo, and Venus Over Manhattan, New York.