Kazuo Shiraga was born in Amagasaki, Japan in 1924. He studied traditional painting at the Kyoto Municipal School of Painting and the Kyoto City University of Arts. Graduating in 1948, he went to the City Art Centre in Osaka to study oil painting.
In 1953, working on basis that ‘art should be created from zero, nothing’, Shiraga, alongside fellow artists Akira Kanayama and Saburo Murakami, founded the Zero group. In 1955, this group of artists merged with the more prestigious Gutaï group – amongst whose stated aims were to prove their spirits were free. Together this new group of radical artists pioneered unique series of art forms.
At the first Gutaï show, in Tokyo in 1955, Shiraga staged a piece called Challenge to Mud in which he hurled himself into a pile of clay and wrestled it into sculptural shapes. Although Shiraga insisted only ‘performance’ mattered and any physical remnants were mere ‘residue’, he was careful to preserve these body-sculptures. The second Gutaï show, in May 1957, was called Art Using the Stage. Shiraga, dressed in a red Pinocchio suit and suspended by a rope from the ceiling of the gallery in Osaka, began to kick oil paint across a piece of paper on the floor. This second performance piece, called Sambaso Super-Modern, excited significant critical acclaim and encouraged Shiraga to work exclusively on canvas.
Subsequently hanging from a rope in his own studio rather than in front of an audience, he found he could achieve a striking effect in a short space of time using large quantities of paint. Following Shiraga’s meeting with French art critic Michel Tapié, the sixth Gutaï exhibition took place at the Martha Jackson Gallery in New York. The work Shiraga showed in America was far more solid and thought-through than previously. Its sophistication marked an end to the spontaneity that had characterised the Gutaï experiment. But by the end of the Sixties, Gutaï’s work had become stale and repetitive. In 1971 Shiraga entered the Buddhist priesthood at the Enryaku Monastery on Mount Hiei, near Kyoto. In 1972 the Gutaï group quietly disbanded. Under his monk’s name, Sodo, Shiraga continued to paint until the end of his life. In 1987 Shiraga was awarded the Hyogo Prefectural Cultural Prize and in 1999 the Distinguished Service Medal for Culture. A show of his late works, held in 2001 at the Annely Juda gallery in London, showed an energy undiminished by age. He died in Amagasaki, Japan in 2008.
Shiraga’s performative painting practice was undoubtedly influenced by the American abstract expressionism. Similar in style to Jackson Pollock’s ‘drip’ method, Shiraga’s technique was more textured, with paint applied more liberally than Pollock’s painterly swirls. Indeed, although Pollock pioneered the action painting some years before Gutaï, copies of the group’s manifesto were found in his library after his death. Despite not being not fully recognised until after his death, Shiraga’s work is the natural antecedent of all contemporary conceptual, installation and performance work. Even if he did not use the word, his performances were undoubtedly ‘happenings’ and his legacy lived vividly on in the work not just of Yoko Ono but Allan Kaprow, Yves Klein and the Fluxus group. Since his death Shiraga’s work has been exhibited all over the world including as the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. In December 2014 his 1961 abstract Chijikusei Gotenrai sold for $3.7 million.