If you don't make a trip to Japan this season, you can still catch a glimpse of Japan tripping in the American South. When the Western world was taking acid and celebrating free love, Japan was moving in tandem, producing art that synthesizes psychedelia, pop, and more traditional Japanese aesthetic. Celebrating this super-saturated moment in art art history, the Ackland Museum at the University of North Carolina is currently exhibiting Japanese posters from the Merrill C. Berman collection along with a collection of short Japanese animated films from the '60s and '70s.
The collection is a time capsule worth opening. The pantheon of pop-art icons known in the West includes many Americans, and a handful of English (Paolozzi, Hamilton) and German (Polke, early Richter) artists. Connoisseurs may include some of the French New Realists, such as Nikki de Saint Phalle, Martial Raysss, and Jacques de la Villeglé. But there is a blindspot for contributions outside of Western Europe. Among Japanese artists who emerged in the late '60s, Kusama has attained international acclaim, but the name Tadanori Yokoo (above) is likely to elicit a blank state.
The Ackland exhibit is correcting that with an impressive collection of poster art by Yokoo and his peers, as well as other Japanese artists active through the 1990s. The work on view surely pop in orientation, but even more obviously, it is psychedelic. Many of the posters look like lost production stills from The Yellow Submarine. This dates them, of course, but there is much here that rewards attention.
Though clearly in dialog with Western trends, Japanese poster art is still recognizably Japanese. That is partially due to the iconography (no shortage of rising suns here), but there are also obvious connections to the rich tradition of Japanese printmaking. The spectral intensity of Western psychedelia is forecast in Hokusai's fuji series among many others. Some of this work, has gorgeous color blending that invokes this legacy directly (see above). Some of it also invokes another feature familiar in Japanese aesthetics: simplicity. We see posters that update a long tradition of graphic insignia well known in Japan (below). In contrast, a great many of them display the opposing trend that is also central to Japanese art: complexity (top). There is fascinating research suggesting that Japanese art is more visually complex than Western art. This is confirmed here.
The poster exhibit is complemented by a charming collection of animated shorts by Yokoo (below, still) and Keiichi Tanaam (below, clip). These also show their age, but it is good fun to go on this cross-cultural nostalgia trip.