Photo documenting Kazuo Shiraga performing Challenging Mud at the 1st Gutai Open Air Exhibition, Tokyo. 1955.
Kazuo Shiraga was born in 1924 in Amagasaki, Japan. Shiraga attended the Kyoto Municipal School of Painting and the City Art Centre of Osaka, familiarizing himself with both traditional Japanese painting and Western oil painting. Shiraga cofounded the experimental Zero Society (Zero-kai) in 1952 with Saburō Murakami, Atsuko Tanaka, and Akira Kanayama. He began a series of signature works in 1954, for which he suspended himself on a rope above canvas, manipulating the paint with his feet. In 1955, he joined the Gutai collective, founded the previous year by Shozo Shimamoto and Jiro Yoshihara. That year, he performed Challenging Mud, one of his best known works, as well as Red Logs (Please Come In). Work by Shiraga and other members of the Gutai group was exhibited at Martha Jackson Gallery in New York in 1958, and was generally understood as being derivative of Abstract Expressionism, in a misreading the group would strive to clarify. Japan’s Expo ’70 hosted the last major public presentation of Gutai work before the collective was dissolved in 1972. Shiraga became a Buddhist monk in 1971, training at the Tendai-sect temple Enryakuji on Mount Hiei; he would resume painting the following year after the disbanding of Gutai. In 1998, Paul Schimmel organized Out of Actions: Between Performance and the Object, 1949-1979 at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; Out of Actions was arguably the first major museum exhibition exploring the complex dynamics of postwar artwork involving action and performance, and work by the Gutai group was displayed prominently at the entrance. Schimmel is also responsible for organizing Destroy the Picture: Painting the Void, 1949-1962, an exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (2012-13) which traveled to the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago (2013), and included work by Shiraga and other artists affiliated with Gutai. In 2013, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum presented Gutai: Splendid Playground, a retrospective of the Gutai Art Association, including two generations of Gutai production and featuring work by Shiraga. Also in 2013, the San Francisco Art Institute presented Experimental Exhibition of Modern Art to Challenge the Mid-Winter Burning Sun: Gutai Historical Survey and Contemporary Response, the first West Coast survey exhibition of Gutai. In 2015, the Dallas Museum of Art presented Between Action and the Unknown: The Art of Kazuo Shiraga and Sadamasa Motonaga, pairing Shiraga with Motonaga, another experimental painter from the Gutai group.