Before turning his attention to graphic design in the mid-1960s, Tadanori Yokoo (b. 1936) first trained as a painter and worked as a stage designer for avant-garde theater productions in Tokyo.  By the late 1960s, however, he was best known as a graphic designer. His work drew international acclaim when it was included in the 1968 exhibition at MoMA “Word and Image: Posters and Typography from the Graphic Design Collection of the Museum of Modern Art, 1879–1967.” [1] Yokoo was also commissioned to create the exhibition’s poster, seen here. The exhibition, curated by Mildred Constantine, displayed more than 300 posters from the museum’s collection and attempted to present a “comprehensive historical survey” of stylistic traditions from the 1880s to present. [2]

Yokoo’s poster visually evokes the exhibition’s title with four mouths at top representing “word,” and a large eye at the bottom representing “image.” The poster is rendered in his signature fluorescent color scheme and includes his frequently-used motif of a rising sun. Here though, instead of rays radiating out of a sun, they emanate from a large, blue eye.

Yokoo first used the sun’s rays in a poster promoting an exhibition of his own work in 1965, entitled “Made in Japan, Tadanori Yokoo, Having Reached a Climax at the Age of 29, I Was Dead.” [3] That 1965 poster proved to be a seminal work for Yokoo, setting the tone for his own unique visual language. His compositions mine imagery from popular culture to comment on traditional hierarchies of the fine arts and synthesize iconic elements from global art influences to remark on the collective consciousness of Japanese society.

Kristina Parsons is a Curatorial Assistant and the E. McKnight Kauffer Research Cataloguer in the Drawings, Prints & Graphic Design Department at Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum.

[1] Four years later, MoMA mounted a monographic exhibition of Yokoo’s work. This was closely followed by other solo exhibitions at the Museen für Kunst und Gewerbe in Hamburg (1973) and the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam (1974). Today, his work continues to be included in the checklists of major exhibitions around the world.

[2] The Museum of Modern Art, “Press Release: Word and Image,” Jan. 25, 1968, accessed Dec. 6, 2018, https://www.moma.org/documents/moma_press-release_326549.pdf.

[3] Christopher Mount, “Wild at Heart: Tadanori Yokoo,” Design Observer, Jul. 21, 2010, accessed Dec. 6, 2018, https://designobserver.com/feature/wild-at-heart-tadanori-yokoo/14588.

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