It’s not what to paint. It’s not how to paint. It’s not how to live…

(Tadanori Yokoo)

There may be no other Japanese artist who captures the profound realm of imagination, illusion, mysticism, spirituality, and the subconscious mind all intertwined in a psychedelic web of colors and expressions as freely and honestly as Tadanori Yokoo. Yokoo is art himself. He encompasses all the facets of classical history, literature, religion, and political and social dogma, and delves into an alternate universe beyond our mortal reality. His powerful works reveal not only jungles and paradises borne from his childhood memories wrapped in novels and movies, but also the underground and etheric worlds where all human souls rise and return after death.

The colossal exhibition, Genkyo Yokoo Tadanori being held at Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo until October 17, 2021 is the largest showcase of the artist’s comprehensive collection spanning over sixty years and comprises more than 600 pieces of paintings and graphic works. They attempt to interpret Yokoo’s inner philosophies through the concept of Genkyo, which can signify three meanings: the world of imagination, original homeland, and present state. According to Yokoo, genkyo is the home and source of all human souls, the macrocosm, spirit world, and the premortal life. All human beings are born into this corporeal world from genkyo, and return to genkyo once more at the end of their physical existence. This perception is a reflection of Yokoo’s deep interest in himself—in his “I” that grows from an eclectic culmination of his autobiographical narratives, childhood reflections and emotions, dreams, and visions that take him further to a dimension beyond his original roots, to something universal in his own self, like a “previous existence in the cosmos.”

Tadanori Yokoo began his career as a graphic designer in the 1950s, although he started designing posters when he was still in high school. From age 22, he had already garnered several awards for his poster designs. One of his most celebrated graphic works is the famous Tadanori Yokoo (1965) (Collection of the Artist, Deposited in Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo). The image depicts Yokoo in a black suit and formal shoes, clutching a red rose in his hand, and is hanging from a rope. The brilliant backdrop of red and blue rays is derived from the rising sun of the old Japanese flag, representing wartime Japan, with a reference to the Asahi Breweries trademark. There is a small photograph of Yokoo as an infant, and another resembling a high school group shot. On the upper corners are tiny pictures of the Shinkansen train and the nuclear bomb emerging from Mt. Fuji. Yokoo explains these symbols as representations of rebirth. At the same time, at the bottom of the illustration, the words “Having reached a climax at the age of 29, I was dead” suggests his own death statement to break away from his past. This provocative work was the artist’s radical attempt to challenge the state of culture and politics in post-war Japan and to deviate from the country’s acceptance of Western modernism. Many other captivating graphic works by the artist are found in the exhibition’s Graphics without Borders section. Several pieces have won international acclaim and have been acquired in 1967 by the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), where his solo exhibition was also installed in 1972.

Having spent an enormous amount of time in New York. Yokoo immersed himself into the hippie era, psychedelic movement, flower children, Vietnam War, racism, and America’s revolutionary transition from the old regime to the liberal order. The renaissance of Western modernism greatly influenced Yokoo’s artistic style. It served as the catalyst in his life when in 1980, he came across Picasso’s exhibition at the MoMA. This encounter changed his aesthetic direction completely. Yokoo decided in the blink of an eye to break free from graphics and switch to painting. This medium elevated his desire to connect more intimately to his ambiguous but multi-faceted “I”. He began to devise experimental methods with intense brushstrokes, overlapping multiple screens, heavy drawings, and multi-dimensional collages of a canvas over another canvas. Yokoo has consistently devalued perfection, and instead, pursued the relevance of the process. The collage method can be seen in Relation between Rose and Rose-Bud (1988, Equine Museum of Japan), Love Arabesque (2012, Collection of the Artist), and Homeland (2019, Collection of the Artist, Deposited in Yokoo Tadanori Museum of Contemporary Art), among others.

The Y-Junction series is one of the artist’s important trademarks. Over a period of two years, Yokoo journeyed through all of Tokyo’s 23 wards with his camera, capturing forked roads in day and night scenes. This obsession stemmed from a visit to his hometown in Nishiwaki, Hyogo Prefecture, when he heard that a model shop from his youth had shut down. Yokoo took a picture of the site, but the nostalgic landscape had disappeared, leaving the artist with a divorced image from his yearning for the past. Instead of expressing such forgotten streets as ghosts of yesteryears, Yokoo attempted to ignite colorful images, and summon many themes from his paintings, such as hot springs, naked women, objects from travels, classical and mythological figures, nature, warships, and underworld creatures. For Yokoo, these street scenes gave him a sense of deja-vu that seemed to have transcended time and space. They symbolize repetitive but free-spirited crossroads in a person’s life. In the exhibition’s section At a Y-Junction, one sample from this series is A Dark Night's Flashing: From the Red Darkness (2001, Collection of Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo).

Yokoo is also noted for his waterfall postcard collection. He claims to have had seen waterfalls frequently in his dreams. These unconscious visions created a stimulating impact as elements of inspiration from his past life. Yokoo collected postcards of waterfalls from all over the world as reference materials for his waterfall paintings without intending to have gathered 13,000 pieces. In the Waterfall Installation room of the exhibition, the mirrored walls and floors reflecting the thousands of tiny postcards on the walls pull the visitor toward an aura of purity and cosmic power in the same manner waterfalls were worshipped in ancient times.

The color red predominantly occupies many of Yokoo’s paintings, especially in the late 1990s. Deep red illuminates in various shades with only a few black tones. Although the color originally grew from flames in the sky from the air raid during the war, Yokoo eventually associated red with the eroticism of death—a subject that he burrowed profusely in his works. In the Book of Dead section, red swims omnipresently across the floors and walls. Death resonates in Yokoo’s mind from his childhood recollections of the departed, his adoptive parents, and the bloody remnants of the war. In Destiny (1997, Collection of Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo), the canvas is a dream-like constellation of fireflies floating in golden orbs against a scarlet mist and black sky. A couple’s legs walk on a suspended bridge, but their bodies have vanished as though death had taken over them.

Yokoo’s lonely childhood left him habitually alone in his house with picture books and portraits of movie stars from movie magazines, which he learned to draw by imitating them. In his own world, he had created story-like expressions of dreams, adventures, and mysteries wrapped in wonder, enigma, romanticism, and eroticism. Perhaps, these visual elements triggered his collaboration with many musicians and celebrities throughout the 1960s and 1970s. This window of opportunity allowed him to design albums, record covers, and concert posters. Some of these renowned figures included Japanese actor Ken Takakura, musicians Earth, Wind and Fire, Beatles, Cat Stevens, and artists Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns, Saul Steinberg, novelist Yukio Mishima (whom he established a close relation to), and others. Mishima quoted Yokoo’s works as a revelation of…

…all of the unbearable things, which we Japanese have inside ourselves and they make people angry and frightened. He makes explosions with the frightening resemblance which lies between the vulgarity of billboards, advertising, variety shows, festivals at the shrine devoted to the war dead, and the red containers of Coca Cola in American Pop Art—things which are in us but which we do not want to see.

At the end of the exhibition, we witness portrait paintings with masks. Yokoo had devoted himself strenuously to his With Corona (Without Corona) project amid the outbreak of the Covid-19 epidemic. In the span of two years, he had completed about 700 portraits of renowned figures wearing masks in a wide array of designs picked up from images, photographs, and news items on television. They are Yokoo’s homage to the changing tendencies of our times. The white mask with an open red mouth and drooping tongue has been the artist’s icon, which in fact, he first created when he was only 29. It appears candidly in many of his paintings as well.

Another wonderful gallery of Yokoo’s portrait paintings can also be viewed at the 21_21 Design Sight Gallery 3 in Roppongi, Tokyo also until October 17th. Yokoo Tadanori: The Artists illustrates about 139 portraits of distinguished artists, designers, musicians, philosophers and scientists by invitation of the Fondation Cartier pour l’Art Contemporain, as a tribute to the important figures in French history. The collection debuted in Paris in 2006 and is being shown in Japan for the first time. Yokoo employed playful techniques in mixing graphics and images to express the sketches of public profiles, such as David Lynch, Patti Smith, Lou Reed, Takeshi Kitano, Issey Miyake, Jean-Paul Gaultier, Christian Boltanski, and more. Each portrait is rendered in a varied style to articulate the subject’s own individual persona—a typical approach of Yokoo who believes strongly in alteration, or else “the meaning of reincarnation will be completely lost.”

At 85 years old, Tadanori Yokoo continues to transform ideas from reality to fantasy and fantasy to reality, and relishes in the incompleteness as the true source of creativity. In one interview, he had expressed his view on how he would like to be remembered.

It’s not good to attach your mind to be remembered by others, as the final enlightenment is to be free from this kind of adhesion. I would be a man of tragedy if I still had such a desire.