Graphic design as an art form rests on a very precarious ledge between form and function. To lean too far to either side of this theoretic fulcrum defeats its purpose. This balancing act makes the immense and accomplished work of Tadanori Yokoo that much more impressive, as he is able to have immense success in design as a satisfactory product to his client but also genuinely express himself and push the boundaries of visual expression.
A very easy and illustrative comparison to make, given the time period that Yokoo began to flourish as well as his seemingly combative response to the austere aestheticism of modernist graphic design is that of an Eastern Andy Warhol, but ultimately this comparison is myopic. Whereas Warhol was primarily interested in producing his art, and art in general, as a mass produced commodity in the modern capitalist culture, Yokoo was using the same principals of design and medium to meditate on his own life and experiences. Whereas Warhol sought to depersonalize his work and allow it to become enmeshed from the mass culture that he helped to change into his own image, Yokoo used the materials of pop art to dig inward and find structure and meaning for his meditations on himself and his place in the world. Warhol was an artist that forced functionality into modern art through commodification, Yokoo took commodified graphic design and passed on a deeply personal artistry into its spaces.
Naturally this practice has given Tadanori’s work a general warmth that was unheard of in the world of design at the time. An industry based around appealing to a customer and their product had little room or demand for the artists self expression in their work, let alone literally presenting images of the artist himself in the final product. Yet very early in on his career, Yokoo sought to shatter such notions with his now iconic work “Having Reached a Climax at the Age of 29, I was Dead” at one of his early galleries. The posters wry humor, density, and imagery, complete with images of himself as a child, draw the very concept of graphic design in Japanese culture like an erupting Mt. Fuji (appropriately appearing in the top right corner of the image). From this point forward, Yokoo was sought after as a creator that went beyond his base task as a messenger of basic information in appealing forms and brought pure expression to his work for others.
Despite his very personal approach to his craft, Yokoo was a very popular artist whose appeal made his meditative work flourish through the pop cultural subconscious of Japan that lasts to this day. Initially, he developed a reputation as a notable graphic designer purely from a functional standpoint for Kabuki theater companies, yakuza films, and pop album covers. After the death of his close friend, author and political activist Yukio Mishima, he sought peace through exploring spirituality through the world’s religions as well as Western rock music, the newest religion at the time. In this way he began working with such groups as the Beatles; Emmerson, Lake and Palmer; Cat Stevens; and Carlos Satana, for whom Yokoo designed numerous posters and album covers.
Presented here as a feature is “Tokuten Eizo” a series of the artists work put to animation. Set to eerie music and presented in muted colors, the animation fits well within his immense oeuvre. Themes including sensuality, death, clashes of Western and Eastern influences, and of course the ever present sun all make appearances in the short. Produced prior to his big break “the Age of 29”, the majority of the imagery is hand drawn, flat but engrossing worlds with sudden releases of depth and detail. Indications of his later collage work can be found in the brief but striking appearance of photographs incorporated into the world of ink line and paper. This meeting of purely fabricated drawn image and repurposed captured image will be incredibly important for Yokoo’s expression, as the meeting of the two would blur the line between his largest thematic point throughout his career, his reflection on his own memory.
Despite the fact that the frantic series of images feels like a cohesive work, it’s clear upon a close inspection that this is, in some cases a showcase of his graphic design work. Winged, mustachioed gentlemen are outlined with text from a concert in Tokyo. Birds centered in the frame hover just out of contact with blocks of Japanese and English text, the long past show dates baring no significance within the context of the animation betrays the simultaneous intent of the overall products message as not only a form of expression but a tool of very plain and direct information. It is to Yokoo’s incredible abilities and focus as an artist that he is able to take a series of seemingly disconnected products and craft it into something complete once the various images are joined together through the animation process of fixed and constant time.
Much like our own thought processes and self reflections, thoughts, phrases, and images are both sharply present and fleeting. Every moment of our lives and every feeling we ever experienced has the potential to rise up and roll past our fixed point in the vista of our self conscious and it is at times difficult to hold these moments in place for a moment to rest upon them and learn from them. This is part of what Yokoo has been seeking to do through his life-spanning, prolific career shaping the world of graphic design from his corner of the globe. By placing a large part of himself in his work for others, he has allowed his inner world to spill out into the physical world. The fact that his chosen profession was graphic design only helped guarantee that this escape would truly end up, through direct reproduction or endless inspiration, on nearly every surface of the globe. Our part in this act of outward self reflection is to take them in as our own memories, the same way Yokoo was chiefly inspired by Japanese prints of his childhood, and then release them back out in our own inward outward image.