“Most of the characters in my works are based on my own life experience. A myriad of trials, events and meetings that have affected me … they all make up the key elements of my works.”
Keiichi Tanaami is one of the leading pop artists of postwar Japan and has been active as a multi-genre artist since the 1960s as a graphic designer, illustrator, video artist and fine artist.
Tanaami was born in Tokyo in 1936. He was 9 years old when Tokyo was bombed during the Great Tokyo Air Raid of World War II in 1945. Images seared into the back of his mind at this time would become major motifs in his artwork: war; roaring American bombers; firebombs dropped from planes; eroticism; American consumerism; and, in a later period, philosophical reflections on the meaning of life and death.
Themes in his works – a dead goldfish, deformed characters, rays of light, helical pine trees, roaring American bombers, firebombs dropped from planes, fleeing masses, flashes from bombs reflecting in water – reflect images from a world of dreams and childhood memories.
At the beginning of his career, Tanaami devoted particular attention to American experimental films (‘Good-by Elvis and USA’ (1971)), took part in happenings staged by Yoko Ono, and shot videos with Nam June. At the same time, he illustrated fashion magazines and created collages and paintings. During the 60s, he busied himself as a successful illustrator and graphic designer while also actively participating in the Neo-Dada organization with Ushio Shinohara, Robert Rauschenberg and Michel Tapié.
In 1967, Tanaami took his first trip to New York City. There he came face to face with the works of Andy Warhol, shining brightly amidst the whirlwind of prospering American consumerism, and Tanaami was struck by the new possibilities of art within the world of design.
“Warhol was in the process of shifting from commercial illustrator to artist, and I both witnessed and experienced firsthand his tactics, his method of incision into the art world. His strategies were identical to the strategies employed by advertising agencies. He used contemporary icons as motifs in his works and for his other activities put together media such as films, newspapers and rock bands. In other words, Warhol’s sole existence was selling his works to the art market. I was shocked by this, and at the same time I embraced him as the perfect role model for myself. Like Warhol, I decided not to limit myself to one medium, to fine art or design only, but instead to explore many different methods.” – Keiichi Tanaami
At the height of psychedelic culture and pop art, Tanaami’s kitschy, colorful illustrations and design work received high acclaim in both Japan and abroad. He created album cover art for the legendary bands The Monkees and Jefferson Airplane and, in 1968, his piece “NO MORE WAR” won top prize in an antiwar poster contest organized by Avant-Garde Magazine.
His series of erotic paintings featuring Hollywood actresses done in the early 70s became an important body of work and Tanaami became known as an artist with a witty eye for American culture.
In 1975, Tanaami became the first art director of the Japanese edition of Playboy Magazine, “Monthly Playboy”, and went to New York once again to visit Playboy’s head office. The editor there took him to Andy Warhol’s Factory.
Eroticism in Tanami’s works reflects the national culture and color, and the images of young women, with their almost architectural accuracy, are reflected in paintings, films and sculptures.
Tanaami has worked as a professor at Kyoto University of Art and Design since 1991, where he has helped bring up young new artists. Tanaami’s works have had significant influence on artists such as Takashi Murakami, Tabaimo, KAWS, and many others.
Among Tanaami’s personal projects are “Hammer Projects: Oliver Payne and Keiichi Tanaami” at Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, USA; “No More War” at Schinkel Pavillon, Berlin, Germany (2013) and at Art 42 Basel (2011); and “Still in Dream” at Frieze Art Fair (2010).
Tanaami’s works can be found in museums and institutions such as MoMA (USA), Tate Modern (UK), Stedelijk Museum (Netherlands), The Art Institute of Chicago (USA), National Portrait Gallery (USA), Friedrich Christian Flick Collection (Switzerland), M+ Museum for Visual Culture (Hong Kong), Kawasaki City Museum (Japan), and Dresden Museum of Modern Art (Germany).