Surrealist Terrors From A Visionary Japanese Pop Artist

This month in Zurich, 76-year-old artist Keiichi Tanaami shows vivid works made after a bout with severe illness.
There are conventional ways to describe Japanese artist Keiichi Tanaami: Pop Art superstar. Designer of album covers for the Monkees and Super Furry Animals. Long-time art director of Japanese Playboy. Subject of dozens of solo exhibitions and inspiration to megastar artists like Takashi Murakami. Then there are unconventional descriptors, which somehow seem more appropriate: “Dark magician of electric cinema . . . manager of the mental discotheque . . . designer of young girls’ beards.”

 Tanaami, who is now 76, has lived through some of the most significant events of the 20th century. He was nine when he survived the Tokyo air raid, which threw him into “the enigmatic monstrosity of war.” He participated in the explosion of the city’s avant-garde in the 1960s. He hung out in Andy Warhol’s Factory and spent a few years doing LSD in San Francisco. In his dense body of work, horror, joy, and eroticism intermingle.
NO MORE WAR, at Studiolo in Zurich, focuses on a fruitful but tortured period of Tanaami’s career: the '80s, when a severe illness nearly killed him. During his recovery, he experienced intense hallucinations and visions, and afterwards, he started experimenting with sculpture.
 The wooden sculptures draw on traditional Japanese puzzle-making craft, but the imagery comes directly from the hallucinations. Gnarled, neon-hued pine trees snipped from a vision he remembers, women hanging from gold crests, and phallic shapes inlaid with fish bones. Goldfish are a constant motif for Tanaami, who says they recall his father’s malformed goldfish after the war. The sculptures are intensely personal, but their proportions and volumes were clearly influenced by Memphis, the maligned Italian design group.
It’s always difficult to assess an artist outside of what you know about his or her life. Would Tanaami’s haunting visual language exist if he hadn’t been subjected to the horrors of Tokyo in 1945, or tripped in San Francisco in the 1970s? What if he hadn’t defied death in the early 1980s? For Tanaami, it doesn’t seem to matter; memory and imagination are one continuous fabric. “On the night of the air raid, I remember watching swarms of people flee from bald mountaintops,” he recalls. “But then something occurs to me: was that moment real? Dream and reality are all mixed up in my memories, recorded permanently in this ambiguous way.”