Kazuo Shiraga joined Gutai in 1955 and is arguably internationally the group’s most well-known participant. He initially studied nihonga, followed by yoga painting, before taking up oil painting. Even before joining Gutai, in the early 1950s he had emerged as a highly avant-garde artist, producing paintings using his fingernails in 1953 and in 1954, his feet. He sought to break free of convention to produce paintings in an unselfconscious act in which the artist and medium merge. His foot-painting which would become is trademark, began on smaller canvases, which grew larger and larger over the coming years.
Upon joining Gutai in 1955, he took his initial rejection of conventionalism even further, by undertaking his iconic outdoor performance painting, Challenging Mud (1955), where he dressed in a pair of white shorts and dove into and wrestled with a large pile of mud mixed with stone and cement. The resultant work was then left where it lay for the duration of the 1st Gutai Art Exhibition at the Ohara Kaikan in Tokyo. Further performance work followed, such as Ultramodern Sanbaso (1957) performed at the Sankei Kaikan hall in Osaka and at the Sankei hall in Tokyo, in which he appeared on stage wearing a dramatic red costume with elongated arms.
In 1958 Shiraga’s work was seen in a Gutai exhibition at the Martha Jackson Gallery in New York, and in The International Art of a New Era: Informel and Gutai at the Osaka International Festival. In the latter exhibition Japanese artists showed alongside European and American artists including Tapies, Appel, Motherwell, Kline and Pollock among others.
Shiraga’s later artistic period began in around 1971 when he became a Buddhist monk of the Tendai sect. At almost the same time, in 1972, Jiro Yoshihara died and Gutai was disbanded, however from this point Shiraga found an extraordinary new momentum and energy in his work. He continued painting with his feet and these works from the 1970s onwards became very dynamic, incorporating a much wider range of colours.