Born in Kyoto on July 4, 1918, Yagi Kazuō was the eldest son of ceramist Yagi Issō (1894-73), who excelled at works inspired by Chinese Song Dynasty ceramics. After graduating from the sculpture section of the Kyoto Municipal School of Arts and Crafts, Yagi Kazuō became a student at the Ceramic Research Institute in Kyoto and in 1946 took part in establishing the Young Pottery-makers’ Collective, which was disbanded in mid-1948. Later that year, he co-founded the avant-garde group Sōdeisha as a vehicle for expanding the expressive possibilities of clay.
Yagi focused on the creation of “objets” — neither pure sculpture nor simply vessels. In 1954 at the Form Gallery, Tokyo, he exhibited his now iconic work, “Mr. Zamsa’s Walk,” which marked his radical repositioning of the potter’s wheel as a mere mechanical tool instead of the determining factor in the forming process. However, like his Sōdeisha colleagues, Yagi began with utilitarian vessels inspired by modern Western art. In 1962, together with Yamada Hikaru, he established Mon Kōbō (“Corner Workshop”), in which Yamada was responsible for the functional forms and Yagi, for the surface patterning. Yagi was quite comfortable producing sculptural forms and utilitarian vessels simultaneously and respected them equally. Yagi was the first artist to incorporate smoke-blackened ware into the modern ceramic vocabulary, starting in 1957. This manner of treating the surface allowed the original sharpness of the sculpted clay form to remain visible; moreover, it remained unassociated with any prior Japanese ceramic tradition.
With broad interests in poetry, music and photography, and known for his sarcastic wit and intellect, Yagi inevitably became Sōdeisha’s spokesman. Over time, as its central figure, Yagi also assumed the mantle of standard-bearer for contemporary ceramic art in postwar Japan.