Keiichi Tanaami, Indication and Emergence, 2021. Pigmented ink, acrylic silkscreen medium, crushed glass, glitter, acrylic paint on canvas; Triptych, each panel: 78 3/4 x 39 3/8 in (200 x 100 cm) Overall: 78 3/4 x 118 1/4 in (200 x 300 cm). © 2022 Keiichi Tanaami. Courtesy the artist and NANZUKA, Tokyo, and Venus Over Manhattan, New York.
Keiichi Tanaami, "Pleasure of Picasso – Mother and Child No. 123," 2020-2022. Acrylic on canvas; 16 1/4 x 12 1/2 in (41 x 32 cm). © 2022 Keiichi Tanaami. Courtesy the artist and NANZUKA, Tokyo, and Venus Over Manhattan, New York
Keiichi Tanaami, "Pleasure of Picasso – Mother and Child No. 122," 2020-2022. Acrylic on canvas; 16 1/4 x 12 1/2 in (41 x 32 cm). © 2022 Keiichi Tanaami. Courtesy the artist and NANZUKA, Tokyo, and Venus Over Manhattan, New York
Keiichi Tanaami, "Fragment of Time," 2022. Pigmented ink, acrylic silkscreen medium, crushed glass, glitter, acrylic paint on canvas; Triptych, each panel: 80 3/8 x 39 3/8 in (204 x 100 cm) Overall: 80 3/8 x 118 1/8 in (204 x 300 cm). © 2022 Keiichi Tanaami. Courtesy the artist and NANZUKA, Tokyo, and Venus Over Manhattan, New York
Keiichi Tanaami, "Pleasure of Picasso – Mother and Child No. 128," 2020- 2022. Acrylic on canvas; 16 1/4 x 12 1/2 in (41 x 32 cm). © 2022 Keiichi Tanaami. Courtesy the artist and NANZUKA, Tokyo, and Venus Over Manhattan, New York City
Keiichi Tanaami, "Adventure of the Eyes 29," 2022. Digital canvas print, magazine pages, ink, acrylic paint, rhinestone on canvas; 76 1/2 x 51 1/4 in (194 x 130 cm). © 2022 Keiichi Tanaami. Courtesy the artist and NANZUKA, Tokyo, and Venus Over Manhattan, NY
Keiichi Tanaami, Ecstasy of Eyes, 2022 . Pigmented ink, acrylic silk- screen medium, crushed glass, glitter, acrylic paint on canvas; Diptych, each panel: 57 x 39 3/8 in (145 x 100 cm) Overall: 57 x 78 3/4 in (145 x 200 cm). © 2022 Keiichi Tanaami. Courtesy the artist and NANZUKA, Tokyo, and Venus Over Manhattan, New York.
Inside the Colorful and Cartoonish World of Keiichi Tanaami
by Eli Anapur
As a child, Keiichi Tanaami would go to see a Mickey Mouse cartoon in his local movie theatre in Tokyo every day. He would rigorously copy everything he saw on the screen in his notebooks, resulting in a large number of sketches.
"I still can’t forget the day when I put these pictures up on the wall in order of their screening and exploded in joy as I danced in ways that imitated Mickey’s movements. This interest in things that move and making things move that I’ve had since my childhood, remains unabated to this day," he would later explain.
After big conflicts often emerges great art. A mixture of traditions and iconographies can render fascinating results, unique and original in their expression. American imagery and iconic figures of American culture poured into Japan after the Second World War, mixing with local traditions and influencing Tanaami profoundly.
His works brim with cultural references, from Japanese print traditions to American pop culture and graphic design, brought together in a whirlwind of colours and forms. But this is just one segment of his work. Besides combining traditions, he also creates videos and reworkings of famous artworks from art history, such as the ones by Pablo Picasso and Giorgio de Chirico.
A selection of his fascinating artworks comes on view at the Venus Over Manhattan gallery in New York in a couple of weeks. Among the selected pieces will be his monumental paintings, the Pleasure of Picasso series, and the recent video work Red Shade.
Bringing Two Traditions Together
Keiichi Tanaami's visual language is resolutely contemporary. Although his practice spans over half a century, he is recognized as a forerunner of contemporary art that bridges popular and high culture.
The leading artist of the post-war period and one of the most significant Japanese artists, Tanaami rose to fame in the 1960s when he created images that are today embedded in both Japanese and American cultural landscapes and which influenced art movements in Japan, such as the Superflat movement known through its famed representatives Takashi Murakami and Yoshitomo Nara, among others.
Tanaami's works brim with images from his childhood, including air raids, flares, and bursts of white light from bomb explosions from the Second World War combined with Japanese manga and Neo-Dada references.
Besides the war, his earliest memories relate to motion pictures and screenings of the famous cartoon Steamboat Willie with Mickey Mouse in a small movie theatre in his hometown. Public theatre performances for Japanese kids, known as kamishibai, also captured his mind and eye, and he included references about them in his paintings as well.
His practice is characterized by a combination of styles and mediums, including graphic illustration, film, sculpture, painting, collage, and drawing. Themes taken from American pop culture are placed in dialog with historical forms of Japanese illustration, including the celebrated ukiyo-e woodblock printing. Among iconic figures recognizable in his pieces are cowboys, Superman, and Betty Boop, placed in surreal landscapes of the artist's imagination.
Inspired by various modes of production and cultural exchange, Tanaami's subject matter follows Neo-Dada's rejection of formal hierarchies. Among the influences he cites are Andy Warhol and R. Crumb, from which he learned to put methodology over medium.
As he stated, he never wanted to limit himself creatively. "I decided then not to limit myself to any one medium, to just design or fine art, but to instead do what I wanted using a variety of methods."
The Exhibition Highlights
In the New York exhibition, Tanaami represents a mixture of his works that best describe the plurality of his style. On one side, monumental paintings offer blazing and dizzying layers of imagery and color, and on the other, smaller pieces reference cubist deconstruction of forms.
In the Pleasure of Picasso series of small paintings Tanaami created almost daily during the pandemic, he emulated and reinterpreted innovations brought on by Cubists, especially Picasso, to the painting medium. Interested in European artistic traditions, he uses a variety of methods, developing pieces that combine what he saw with his unique artistic vision.
The series started after Tanaami discovered his reproduction of Picasso's 1943 painting Mother and Child (Mère et enfant) in his studio, where an image of Astro Boy replaced the child. "For some reason, I am extremely fond of this painting of Mother and Child, and have since continued to make reproductions of it now and again."
The process of reproducing the image soothed Tanaami during Covid isolation. "I never thought that the simple act of just copying what I liked without giving it much thought was something that could be so amusing, and it also helped to stabilize my mind and body."
"I feel that the simple process of copying colors and shapes...is similar to the practice of sutra copying," he said. "I was surprised that painting solely as a means to find one's peace of mind, with no fixed intentions, deadlines, or plans for exhibition, would lead to such mindful satisfaction."
Tanaami's motion-dense paintings display an extraordinary mastery of interwoven forms and evoke stories and movements from the movies that mesmerized him as a boy and still hold a powerful influence. According to Tanaami, who has identified movement as a recurring element in his work, the question of "what would happen if I placed this in motion" becomes the central premise in both his paintings and drawings. "I am always conscious, albeit unconsciously, of movement."
Many of his paintings, as he explained, have been created with the idea of movement in mind. The video work Red Shade (2021) is based on paintings that could be set in motion. Each of the 80 scenes was given a movement of its own, and their edited version became the film. Although put together, the scenes are independent and can be freely rearranged without losing the essence of the work.
"My interest towards things that move continues to escalate, and I find amusement in the idea that people other than myself can freely manipulate the eighty pieces in this puzzle."
The Practice of Keiichi Tanaami
One of the key figures in the Japanese art of the post-war era, Keiichi Tanaami (b. 1936, Tokyo), uses a wide range of mediums in his art and has received praise for his work in painting, drawing, collage, sculpture, printmaking, and animation. His compositions, heavily layered and bearing a collage-like quality, are distinguished by the intensity of color and visual impact.
The juxtaposition of commercial imagery from Western society with conventionally Japanese visual forms, including manga and woodblock printing, is a distinctive feature of Tanaami's work. The artist has become a form-setter for succeeding generations of professional artists by examining the friction between divergent forces like the East and the West, violence and innocence, and commercial images and high art.
In 1960, Tanaami received her degree from Musashino Art University. His work has been the focus of numerous international solo exhibitions at both public institutions and galleries, most recently at the Ikeda Museum of 20th Century Art in Shizuoka, the Kawasaki City Museum in Kanagawa, the Gary Tatintsian Gallery in Moscow, the Nanzuka Gallery in Tokyo, and the Katma International in Zurich.
Manhattan Universe at Venus Over Manhattan
The exhibition Keiichi Tanaami: Manhattan Universe will be on view at the Venus Over Manhattan gallery in New York from September 8th until October 8th, 2022.