The artist Jiro Yoshihara may have been a touch mean-spirited when he sniffed that Kazuo Shiraga was "nobody if he didn't paint with his feet", but history has taken much the same view. In May 1957, Shiraga, dressed in a red Pinocchio suit, suspended himself by a rope from the ceiling of a gallery in Osaka and, dangling in space, began to kick oil paint around on a piece of paper lying on the floor. The resultant image was, roughly speaking, an action painting, although of a highly specialised kind. For all that came afterwards, this was to be the genre of work for which Shiraga would be remembered, the defining moment of his art.
The show – "Art Using the Stage" – in which the event took place was the second by a recently formed group of Japanese avant-gardists called the Gutaï. (The word translates roughly as "concrete", in the sense of concrete poetry.) Although Shiraga was one of Gutaï's founders and its artistic leading light, the group was bankrolled and run by Yoshihara, the oldest and richest of its 11 members. In the tradition of Japanese art, Yoshihara was the Gutaï's master and sage: it was his urging to make art "of a kind that no one has ever seen before" that led to Shiraga's first foot-painting performance, which he called Sambaso Super-Modern.
At the original Gutaï show, held in Tokyo two years before, Shiraga had staged an action called Challenge to Mud which consisted of the artist hurling himself into a pile of clay on a stage and wrestling it into sculptural shapes. Although Yoshihara had insisted that the performance was what mattered and that any physical remnants were mere "residue", Shiraga was careful to preserve these body-sculptures, as he was his later foot-paintings on paper. Excited by the critical acclaim for these, he began to work on canvas from 1959 onwards, hanging from a rope in his own studio rather than in front of an audience. This pro-object heresy irked Yoshihara, although it also paved the way for Shiraga's international success in the 1960s.
As Mary McCarthy had remarked of American action painting, "You can't hang an event on a wall." By contrast, Shiraga's canvases could be hung, and were. They could also be bought by the French critic Michel Tapié, and shipped to Europe and, eventually, the United States. When the Sixth Gutaï Art Exhibition took place in September 1958, it was held not in Tokyo or Osaka, but at the Martha Jackson Gallery in New York. The work Shiraga showed there was far more solid and thought-through than before, its sophistication marking an end to the nihilistic spontaneity that had marked the Gutaï experiment.
By the end of the Sixties, the work of the group as a whole had become stale and repetitive. Numbers dwindled with in-fighting and desertion, and when Jiro Yoshihara died suddenly in 1972, the Gutaï quietly disbanded.
In many ways, the group's story paralleled that of post-war Japan in its struggle between tradition and modernity. Shiraga himself had trained in Kyoto as a classical Japanese painter; Yoshihara's distaste for objects (and his role as Gutaï's sage and master) arguably had its roots in Buddhist thinking. There were cultural echoes, too, of Japan's commercial success in Western markets. Given the vogue for Eastern philosophy among European and US artists of the late 1950s, the work of the Gutaï was bound to be warmly received in the West, and it was.
Even if he did not use the word himself, Shiraga's rope-hanging performances were "Happenings"; they preceded those of Allan Kaprow, the alleged inventor of the genre, by at least two years. (Kaprow owned up to having seen Gutaï performances in New York, and acknowledged his debt to them.) Yves Klein, too, may have taken Shiraga on board, Klein's body paintings of 1958 on bearing an uncanny resemblance to the Japanese artist's.
While Jackson Pollock had pioneered action painting in the years before Gutaï's founding, he was certainly aware of the group's work. Copies of its manifesto, published in English in the Japanese art magazine Geijutsu Shincho were found in Pollock's library after his death in August 1956. And Shiraga's legacy lives on most vividly in the work of a younger Japanese artist called Yoko Ono, and in the madcap, performance-based work of the Fluxus group – the arguable font of all modern conceptualism.
For all this, Shiraga and his group are largely forgotten. Neither the Tate nor the Museum of Modern Art in New York holds any of his works, and it is a decade since a major Gutaï exhibition was held in Europe, at the Jeu de Paume in Paris. None of this is likely to have bothered Kazuo Shiraga very much. In 1971, shortly before Yoshihara's death, he had entered the Buddhist priesthood at the Enryaku Monastery on Mount Hiei, near Kyoto. Under his monk's name, Sodo, he continued to paint until the end of his life; a show of his late works, held last December at the Annely Juda gallery in London, showed an energy undiminished by age.
Kazuo Shiraga, painter and monk: born Amagasaki, Japan 1924; died 8 April 2008.