(b. 1924, Japan; d. 2008, Japan)
Gutai artist Kazuo Shiraga was born in 1924 in Amagasaki, in the Hyōgo Prefecture of Japan. After studying nihon-ga (Japanese painting) in Kyoto, Shiraga quickly became frustrated with the material and stylistic constraints and yearned to rebel against its conventions. In 1952, Shiraga cofounded Zero Society (Zero-kai), whose artists believed the concept of an artwork rose above its content. Later in 1955, Shiraga and other Zero Society artists joined Jiro Yoshihara’s Gutai Art Association and merged as one.
That same year, Shiraga rose to prominence for his “performance paintings,” in particular, Challenging Mud, whereby he wrestled several tons of mud in an attempt to display his belief that action generates art. Two years later, Shiraga’s revolutionary practice of painting with his feet, which actually emerged first in 1954, would bring him international acclaim in Japan and Europe. One of the most avant-garde artists of his generation, Shiraga laid paper and canvas down on the floor, and suspended himself with rope, all the while painting with his feet by swirling and sliding paint. His works were first exhibited in New York in 1958 at a Gutai exhibition held at Martha Jackson Gallery. In the 1960s, shortly before Yoshihara’s death, Shiraga entered the Buddhist priesthood at Enryaku Monastery on Mount Hiei, near Kyoto. Adopting the monk name Sodo, he ceased to paint during this time. Following the death of Yoshihara and the disbandment of Gutai in 1972, Shiraga returned to painting. His later works demonstrate the discipline and Buddhist practice during his years at the monastery.
During his six-decade career, while widely appreciated in Japan and Europe, Shiraga, along with other Gutai artists, would remain largely overlooked in the United States. However, recent years saw a resurgence in interest in the Gutai Art Association, with Shiraga’s works being included in major museum survey shows including Destroy the Picture: Painting the Void, 1949-1962 at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (2012-13); Tokyo 1955-1970: A New Avant-Garde at the Museum of Modern Art, New York (2012-13); and Gutai: Spendid Playground at the Solomon R. Guggenheim (2013). Shiraga has been the subject of several solo museum retrospectives including at the Musée d’Art Moderne, Ville de Toulouse in 1993; Hyogo Prefectural Museum of Art, Kobe, in 2001; and the Yokosuka Museum of Art in 2009. Shiraga passed away in 2008 at the age of 84 in Amagasaki.