• Essay

  • July 14th, 2015 07.14.2015

    Profile of the Artist: Keiichi Tanaami


    Renowned Japanese designer, illustrator, video, and Pop artist Keiichi Tanaami influenced succeeding generations of interdisciplinary workers, yet his work is still gaining widespread recognition in the United States. A Corbett vs. Dempsey exhibition which closed in June, his third showing and first full-scale exhibition in the Chicago gallery, featured intimately scaled, chock-full collages that felt entirely contemporary. In fact, the show was comprised of vintage pieces from the 1970s—created soon after Tanaami’s first visit to the United States in 1967. Created on notebook paper with perforated edges, the tightly bound compositions combine wartime comic heroes, pinup girls, and other advertisements cut from magazineswith the artist’s hand-drawn psychedelic figures into Joseph Cornell-like dreamscapes. Many feature pornographic imagery which Tanaami collected from U.S. magazines during his visit and stowed away for future use.

    Keiichi Tanaami, Untitled (Collage Book 7_23), 1970/2013, Ink, marker, and collage on paper, 15 x 17.5 inches

    Born in Tokyo, and one of Japan’s best-known postwar artists, Tanaami is associated with the Pop movement due to his focus on mass-marketing and anime images. He even served as the art director of Japanese Playboy. Tanaami’s clipped images of comic war heroes and damsels in distress echo Lichtenstein, but in Tanaami’s work fighter planes provide a double-edged sword as the culprit behind the destruction of Japan during WWII and particularly the 1945Great Tokyo Air Raid, which seared the artist’s world view as a 9-year old boy. Tanaami said, “The monstrosity of the war I experienced as a child thoroughly wrecked my young mind and spirit, and I think I entered adulthood without ever regaining a normal perspective.”

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    Keiichi Tanaami, Untitled (Collage Book 6_18), 1971. Collage on paper, 15 3/4 x 11 1/2 inches

    In his pieces, Tanaami whirled together his local wartime heroes and pinup girls with down-home American imagery like Shirley Temple, cherry pie, Superman, and Mickey Mouse. Highlighted by the artist’s own psychedelic drawings, the collages capture the simultaneous charm and surrealism of American advertising and mass-consumption—his is a satirical, political interpretation of mass-marking materials. Reminiscent of Richard Hamilton’s 1956 Just What is it That Makes today’s Homes so Different, so Appealing, the works lean closer to the politically-engaged International Pop than the cold commercialism of American Pop.

    One of the more pared-down collages Untitled (Collage Book 6_18) includes three Japanese figures alluding to Tanaami’s background, with alien spaceship and a Harlequin figure on the page, references to the “other” in Western traditions. Tanaami has said of his voracious visual appetite: “[My life] would be more properly called a magazine editor’s life’, spent looking about at my surroundings constantly, wandering from place to place engaging in a wide variety of work along the way.”1

    Keiichi Tanaami Untitled (Collage Book 5_25) 1971 ink, marker, and collage on paper 10 1/2 x 13 3/4 inches
    Keiichi Tanaami, Untitled (Collage Book 5_25), 1971. Ink, marker, and collage on paper 10 1/2 x 13 3/4 inches

    Corbett vs. Dempsey’s exhibition highlighted a recently re-discovered body of work. Now in his sixth decade as an artist, Tanaami continues to produce psychedelic paintings with the same hallucinatory overabundance of consumer images that lent the vintage collages their contemporary sensitivity.

    Keiichi Tanaami (b. 1936) lives and works in Kyoto, Japan.

    1. Keiichi Tanaami, Biography