At 86, the Japanese pop artist has a lifetime of vivid recollections — some more real than others — and a new show in New York.
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When I visited him recently at his Tokyo studio, Keiichi Tanaami, one of Japan’s premier pop artists, told me a horrific story from his childhood. During World War II, when he had fled the capital with his mother and two brothers to escape the incessant firebombings, he recalls running to an open field after hearing an air raid siren. As he cowered in the grass, a young woman in a red dress appeared, only her upper body visible. And then suddenly, a fighter plane shot her, blasting her into the air. In slow motion, she fell back to the ground. Tanaami, recounting the memory decades later, said he even glimpsed the pilot in the cockpit as the plane flew across the field.
It turns out none of this happened. While Tanaami, now 86, did experience multiple Allied bombings during the war, he concocted that particular memory of terror in the field. When he told his mother later that day about what he had seen, she accused him of lying, because she would have never let him out of her sight during an air raid.
“When I thought about it, I realized, ‘Of course that couldn’t have happened,’” said Tanaami, whose current show, “Manhattan Universe,” is on view at the gallery Venus Over Manhattan in New York through October 8. “I have a lot of memories like that,” he said. “I think those created memories are more vivid than the real ones.”
Tanaami’s recollections, both actual and imagined, have animated decades of paintings, sculptures, collages and films in which images of American fighter jets, bursting bombs, streaming blood and screeching roosters sounding alarms of impending disaster recur in surreal Technicolor mash-ups. Even as he blends native arts of Japan — such as ukiyo-e woodblock painting and manga — with American pop iconography including Betty Boop, Mickey Mouse and superheroes, it is the singular trauma of the war that informs his work most consistently. Tanaami said he is still haunted by visions of dead bodies and bleeding victims lying in the streets, as his mother tried to cover his eyes to shelter him from the carnage. “Of course that kind of trauma has stayed within me,” he said. “It is still there.”
Born in 1936 to a textile shop owner and a homemaker, Tanaami grew up during the United States occupation of Japan, imbibing a heavy dose of American culture. He would watch as many as 500 movies a year, most of them Hollywood productions. Particularly transfixing were Disney’s “Steamboat Willie,” which unleashed Mickey Mouse upon the world, and horror films where young women were rescued from the clutches of monsters.
After studying design at Musashino Art University in western Tokyo, he took a job in advertising to satisfy his parents, who feared he could never make a living as an artist. It was so boring, he said, that after two years “there was nothing to do but quit.” He went on to work in the editorial design departments of magazines, eventually taking over as the first art director of the Japanese edition of Playboy in the 1970s. He also designed album covers for bands like Jefferson Airplane and the Monkees.
Inspired in part by the work of Andy Warhol, who also got his start in commercial design, Tanaami realized that the techniques he had honed professionally could seed more personal artwork. In the 1960s, he started making silk-screen prints, oil paintings, ink drawings and collages, often featuring nude images of women. “It might be a generational thing,” he said, noting the proliferation of pornographic magazines he saw at the time, both in Japan and on visits to New York.
Signs of his commercial roots clutter the modest apartment that serves as his studio, with skateboards, greeting cards, mugs, flip-flops, soccer balls and sweatshirts imprinted with images from his artwork strewn across several rooms. He still occasionally takes commissions: He showed off a limited edition, 1,000,000 yen (about $7,000) Moncler down jacket on which he had painted a multicolored figure with an oversize skull and a visible skeleton, variations of which appear in many of his paintings.
He regards himself as mostly a borrower rather than an inventor: “Eighty percent of my work is made from the influence of others,” said Tanaami, who wore a short-sleeved, sky blue Paul Smith button-down shirt imprinted with white pineapple silhouettes, khaki trousers and a tan beanie on his diminutive head. Speaking as if slightly bemused by his fame, he showed no signs of flagging energy even after two hours of talking.
The current exhibit features multiple pieces from a new “Pleasure of Picasso” series, for which Tanaami obsessively copied and reinterpreted some of the Spanish artist’s “Mother and Child” works. His studio, which sits just across the hall from the apartment he shares with his wife, is crammed full of the reimagined Picasso canvases, including one where he superimposed the face of “Astro Boy” — a robot character invented by his childhood hero, the Japanese manga artist Osamu Tezuka — onto the face of the child in Picasso’s original. “At first I thought I would draw 10 and stop,” Tanaami said, but he kept going until he had produced close to 400. Before he started, he “didn’t especially like Picasso,” he said. “But as I was painting work inspired by him, I came to love him.” Here, Tanaami answer’s T’s Artist’s Questionnaire.
What’s the first work you ever sold, and for how much?
The first significant work I sold was at Nanzuka Gallery — or was it the Tokyo Art Fair? There were two pieces of mine and they both sold together. That gallery had just opened and hadn’t sold any pieces yet. It was the very first day the gallery displayed pieces for sale, and mine were sold out right away. And I thought, “Wow, my art sells?” I realized it for the first time.
When you start a new piece, where do you begin — what’s the first step?
It depends on whether it’s a print, painting or sculpture. I think of the idea first. For instance, if I want to make a film, I would make the storyboard first.
How do you know when you’re done?
There’s no real reasoning to it, but intuitively, I think, “OK, I can’t draw any more than this.” I can always tell when the moment arrives. When I arrive at that place, I stop.
What movies have you watched recently, and which ones have given you inspiration for your art?
With Covid, I haven’t been to a theater in over three years. What do I watch on TV? Movies like “Rambo.” I can’t say it’s influenced my art, but I quite like “Rambo.”
What music do you play when you’re making art?
Rather than thinking, “I want to listen to this,” I leave the radio on. J-Wave [an FM radio station] always plays music, so I listen to whatever is playing there, but that’s about it.
What are you reading?
I don’t really read novels. I read a lot of essays and other things, though. I read an enormous amount of manga. Fujiko Fujio often write stories about a character succeeding in life. I loved this kind of manga when I was a small child. The character would move to Tokyo, rent out a tiny apartment, study super hard and succeed. I love those kinds of success stories.
I still read anything by Osamu Tezuka. He writes many different manga, so I read them all. I read a lot of essays, as well. Kumiko Mukoda writes about food in daily life. For instance, she’ll write an entire essay on simmered tofu and she describes the simmered tofu so well, I can sense it right in front of me.
I also read Fujio Akatsuka. He is a super famous manga artist. I’m working on a project with him, and we are going to present the piece at the Parco Museum in Tokyo next January. That’s why I have so many of his materials here.
How many assistants do you usually have?
When did you first feel comfortable saying you’re a professional artist?
Well, I still don’t really have confidence, but I guess I would have to say that it would be when I was finally able to create art on my own, so that would be when I was around 50.
What do you always eat while working?
I don’t eat when I’m working! But I always drink a beer after work. What I eat depends from day to day, but beer is the most important thing. I always drink beer.
How often do you talk to other artists?
I talk to them a lot, but there haven’t been many opportunities to meet them in person lately. I used to teach at a university, and a lot of my students from that period of my life are in Tokyo, and they are all grown up now as well, so I see them quite often. I don’t know if they are doing Pop Art specifically — I think they work in different styles. There are so many of them.
What do you do when you procrastinate?
I don’t. I don’t have slumps. I do the same thing every day. I wake up at eight in the morning, I take my time until around 10 to eat my breakfast and work on writing jobs I have. I come here [to the studio] between 11 and 12, work until the evening, go home, draw some more and go to bed around midnight. I don’t have any hobbies, so all I have to do is make art.
What do you pay for rent?
I bought this place, so I don’t pay rent.
What are your bad habits? What is your worst habit?
I don’t think I have many bad habits. I live a very disciplined life — even more so than those who have to commute for work every day. For instance, I have a bath time. You need to have these things decided. I have a fairly boring life.
What embarrasses you?
Nothing. Perhaps someone once tried to embarrass me, but I just didn’t notice.
What do you do for exercise?
I don’t do anything other than walk. I walk a lot, though. I’ll go to Jingumae, the area around Meiji Shrine, the Tsutaya bookstore in Daikanyama.
What is your favorite artwork by another artist?
My favorite would have to be Francis Bacon, I think. And Chirico — Giorgio de Chirico, that is. Chirico’s work including buildings with perspective. That is my favorite series of his. Bacon only draws people, so I quite like his portraits.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Hikari Hida contributed reporting.