His large breadth of practice beyond art and design led him to be a man of exploration. He’s an artist, designer, painter, illustrator, screen printer, and so much more. Tadanori Yokoo has influenced and embraced a variety of media. His work pushed boundaries and questioned orthodoxies of the time period in Japan where the country treasured its deep-rooted traditions and culture. Especially at a time where the country went through a devastating defeat from World War 2 his work was a revolution in itself. It was also during this time in the 50’s and 60’s where the modernist design movement took momentum and Yokoo’s non-participation was a distinguishing factor about his work. He never fell for the Modernist simplicity and function-over-form. Radicalism and his own, personal desires were the driving functions for his designs.
Tadanori Yokoo was born in Nishiwaki, Japan in 1936. He was adopted by elderly relatives who ran a kimono fabric-making company in rural Japan. As a young child, Yokoo had always been interested in art. He would copy famous paintings, historical illustrations, children’s books, and even the labels on the kimonos. These elements of his childhood in rural Japan has a significant presence in his works. His first job was at a printing company in Kobe Shimbum newspaper and eventually moved to the city to make money. Because he was adopted by elderly relatives, school wasn’t an option and needed to start making money to support himself. In Tokyo, Yokoo began his career as a stage designer and also worked at an advertising agency. He later entered the Nippon Design Center in 1960 where he collaborated with other notable Japanese designers such as Shigeo Fukuda and Ikko Tanaka.
The works of Yokoo have had a tremendous influence on the evolution and iconography of Japanese contemporary art and has straddled the boundaries of commercial art, fine arts, and design. His appropriated imagery, visual jokes, and emergence during the American pop art movement linked his work to artists such as Andy Warhol. However, his commercial work is personal and instantly recognizable. His anti-modernist collage style expresses his own themes and references himself in an individual way. Unlike some pop artists that reproduce mass-produced everyday images and labeled as art, Yokoo’s work is a part of popular culture that he got influence from. His ability to collage and layer mass imagery with personal memories that makes a precisely planned chaos is brilliant. Instead of making designs simply for a client, Yokoo’s work is about his own visions and is immersed in subjectivity.
“Yokoo’s posters are not designed around conventional poster-like ideas. Rather his posters have been executed from his own desire for creative expression, with little regard for cognitive clarity or message.” — Yasushi Kurabyashi (art critic)
Tokyo’s postwar was also an influence for Yokoo during the vibrant postwar art world. Yokoo was part of an avant-garde that tested, pushed, and questioned boundaries. This group included many other well-known artists such as filmmaker Nagisa Oshima, author Yuko Mishima, and artists Yoko Ono as well as Yayoi Kusama. This group was unconstrained by existing notions and reacted to the post-war condition and the destruction of material culture. Some of his universally recognizable works were with collaborations with this group of people.
Yokoo catapulted to fame with his jarring posters and gained international attention. One of his peak moments is when he first went to New York and was recognized by the Museum of Modern Art where he was a part of the seminal Work and Image exhibition in 1968. In 1972 Yokoo had a solo exhibition at the MoMa followed by another one-man exhibit in Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. To Yokoo “New York is a spiritual hometown” where he was exposed to the Western 60’s art scene that he greatly appreciated. His work was accepted by the people and in the city. He was not only the first living graphic designer to be given a solo exhibition but also one of the youngest to receive this honor.
In the 1970’s Yokoo shifted his work for self-reflection after the suicide of his close friend Yukio Mishima and an injury from a traffic accident. Yokoo became fearful of death and his fascination in mysticism, Buddhism, and extraterrestrial civilizations imagery started. He also became very interested in Indian culture particularly after one of his visits in the 70’s and influenced his interest in psychedelic art and ethereal qualities. His spiritual quest bridged him to rock and folk musicians that would ask Yokoo for posters and album covers. He designed work for the Beatles, Carlos Santana, and Cat Stevens.
It was during the 80’s when Yokoo made his declaration to being a painter. This abrupt switch to painting was triggered after visiting a Picasso exhibit in New York.
“It was instantaneous. It was extraordinary. When I entered that exhibition I was a graphic designer and a painter when I left.” –Tadanori Yokoo
This marked his shift in focus to painting and the start of the art world giving him credibility as a fine artist. The subject of his paintings vary and goes backwards and forwards between reality and dreams. He is highly driven and constantly making more works while continuously evolving. Tadanori Yokoo is currently still an active painter freely expressing his visions and passions.