Keiichi Tanaami, ring and pole series B, 1980, wood, lacquer, 21 1/2 x 15 3/4 x 9 1/2".

Keiichi Tanaami, ring and pole series B, 1980, wood, lacquer, 21 1/2 x 15 3/4 x 9 1/2".

Keiichi Tanaami


Keiichi Tanaami, ring and pole series B, 1980, wood, lacquer, 21 1/2 x 15 3/4 x 9 1/2".

In 1975, Keiichi Tanaami—having designed record covers for the Monkees and Jefferson Airplane, worked with Robert Rauschenberg, and visited Warhol’s Factory—became the first art director of Japanese Playboy. But Tanaami, born in Tokyo in 1936, as Japan battled in Manchuria and prepared for its forthcoming Tripartite Pact with Nazi Germany, is more than just an illustrator. The psychedelic pleasures called forth by his multifarious work—graphic design, animation, painting, film, and sculpture—belie its dark and restive content. The industries of sex and war are the parallel tracks along which Tanaami’s brilliant, fluorescent Pop oeuvre glides, sometimes amorphously. In his notorious animated films, for example, bombs become cocks, breasts become fighter jets, Coke bottles become pinup girls, flames become rainbows, ad infinitum.

Tanaami’s nearly unknown sculptures of the late 1970s and ’80s hew to the same metamorphic method, though they must grapple with the solidity of wood rather than the fluidity of pen and film. The artist’s show “No More War” was devoted to these small, lacquer-painted wooden works, which had not previously been exhibited. That they remain as formally mutable and transformative as his animations is astonishing. They were created by traditional Japanese craftsmen using a technique employed to make wooden puzzles for children. And the brightly hued, complexly formed sculptures are reminiscent of puzzles in certain respects: Waves of flame- or bonsailike forms fit seamlessly into larger graphic blocks.

But the frenetically interlocking forms also evoke the admixture of biology, industry, and consumerism that is Tanaami’s fever dream. Take, for example, ring and pole series B, 1980, in which a shiny red plinth (which might be a boxing ring or a Japanese gazebo) raises a black phallic form accompanied by two golden balls and a bronze-hued hand making the peace-sign symbol so emblematic of the 1960s. Another work, from ring and pole series C, 1979, offers the same boxing ring, here holding two naked women with peachy Caucasian skin tones and high heels, their knees pressed primly together. These works are reminiscent of Tanaami’s films, in which the American bombing (both fire and nuclear) of Japan often merges into gaping images of female orifices or Coke cans in an extraordinary examination of postwar advertising and image culture in its most colonial, misogynistic, and Pop-flavored form, and an exploration of a singular, highly sensitive, and fraught Japanese male psyche.

Yet many works in the wooden-sculpture series also court a welcome and elliptical unrecognizability. The bright, abstracted forms of A tree of an elephant, 1989, for example, offer only shades of the flora and animal the title names. Thus the pieces—which variously conjure handmade toys; the erotic, pathos-laden postmodern architectonics of Madelon Vriesendorp or the Memphis Group; and the Japanese abacus—are immersed far more subtly in popular culture. Naked ladies and black phalluses notwithstanding, the signs and symbols Tanaami uses here are more ambiguous. These works foreground his adept eye for forms that expertly play on our sense of recognition yet stay just out of its purview, and accentuate his skill in mutating those abstracted shapes into each other, like metaphors rolling out across a sentence. That so many of the works look like surreal, hallucinogenic versions of Transformer figures—there’s “transformation” again—is ironic, particularly when posited against the show’s title. “No More War,” indeed.

Quinn Latimer