Tadanori Yokoo

Seibu Museum

Tadanori Yokoo has been talked about and written about throughout all the stages of his career—from a superstar poster designer and graphic artist in the ’60s, through his spiritual transformations of the ’70s, to his conversion to full-time painting in the ’80s. At this recent exhibition, entitled “Neo Roman Baroque,” a young man commented that “Yokoo is Tokyo’s William Blake,” a remark that said more about Yokoo and his work than anything I had previously heard or read. Although it is an exaggeration (and even a bit of a distortion) to identify Yokoo with Blake, one can see in Yokoo’s works the 20th-century equivalents of Blake’s private cosmologies, new visual vocabularies, and fascination with the occult. There are also the same rhythmic tidal whirls that flow in his newest paintings, such as Soldier’s Dream, 1986. Perhaps more than with Blake, however, these latest works show stylistic affinities with El Greco and Caravaggio—one painting is even entitled Ectoplasm (Dedicated to Caravaggio), 1986.

But in all of Yokoo’s works, whatever the style, there is a single underlying current. Their fundamental nature is something akin to the “states of mind” that Umberto Boccioni began attempting to represent in 1911, for they are above all a chronicle of his own consciousness. Both Boccioni and Yokoo portray the “self ” that emerges out of the noise of the city. In Yokoo’s work, we are made aware of an intense “self ”that “wages a war against all Tokyo,” to borrow the phrase of critic Yoshiaki Tono.

Yokoo’s paintings are the record of his search for an “altered state of consciousness,” inspired as much by the research and writings of scientists such as John C. Lilly as by the teachings of Zen Buddhism. He tries to visualize the state of consciousness in transition from the individual self to the universal self, while at the same time maintaining his everyday consciousness. Yokoo was strongly attracted to Zen meditation and Oriental medicine, but he felt that they did not suit his temperament and physical constitution, which drove him “to be strong because [he] was weak,” as he wrote in his diary (parts of which were published recently). Around the time he began painting full-time, he said “I feel better physically and mentally when I am painting. I thought it was more effective than sitting [Zen meditation].”

Painting, for him, became a medium of action more than of art—a receptacle for this “altered state of consciousness.” As a result, his works contain an eclectic array of images and styles that reflect his own wide-ranging interests: references to Japanese and Greek myths, Nietzsche and Wagner, Yukio Mishima and Lisa Lyon, Caravaggio and Salvador Dali, the shudder of séance and ectoplasm, and more. It made sense that, despite the lack of seriousness with which Yokoo is regarded by much of the art world here, this exhibition attracted crowds of young people. They could look at Yokoo’s paintings and see their own “state of being” reflected there.

Seigow Matsuoka

Translated from the Japanese by Kazue Kobata.