Takeo Yamaguchi was born on November 23, 1902, in Seoul. He studied Western painting at the Tokyo Art School at a time when this specialization was becoming increasingly popular for incoming students. His course of study surveyed all the major European avant-garde movements of the previous two decades, and Cubism, in particular, struck Yamaguchi for its reduction of painting to a flat, monochromatic expanse. When he graduated in 1927, Yamaguchi moved to Paris and continued to study avant-garde European painting.
He returned to Tokyo in 1931, where the same specializations found at the Tokyo Art School governed artistic practice more broadly. Artists were categorized as either Western or Japanese painters, with a number of splinter groups arising from this major divide. Yamaguchi became associated with the group Nika-kai, or Second-Section Society. Formed in 1914, it opposed the official Japanese government salon, which was organized into three sections—Japanese-style painting, Western-style painting, and sculpture. Nika-kai artists protested not because of the divisions, but because of the associations they produced: Nika-kai did not advocate all Western-influenced painting, but rather an avant-garde dedication to experimentation and abstraction, and therefore came to be one of the most innovative movements in the history of modern Japanese painting. The group appealed to Yamaguchi, who on returning to Tokyo from Paris sought a more permissive environment in which to continue painting. During World War II and the Allied occupation of Japan, however, the development of avant-garde art in Japan waned to a point of nonexistence.
By the mid-1950s, the avant-garde had reemerged and Yamaguchi found his mature style. He combined the two major postwar European painting trends—Art Informel, with its thick, impasto brushstrokes, and the monochrome, with its concern for purity in painting. This combination spawned an acute sensitivity to the color, texture, and materiality of painting and moved Yamaguchi far beyond the play of depth found in Cubism. His work began to focus almost exclusively on the flatness of the canvas, which made his work attractive to Western audiences, who had become accustomed to Minimalism and Post-painterly abstraction in the 1960s. His 1969 show at the Nihonbashi Gallery, New York, for example, combined Minimalism and Conceptual art in its exhibition of 15 red monochromes simply numbered 1 through 15 along with their dimensions.
Yamaguchi's work was featured in the So Paulo Biennial (1955, 1963); Japan Pavilion, Venice Biennale (1956); Guggenheim International Award exhibition, Guggenheim Museum (1958); and The New Japanese Painting and Sculpture, Museum of Modern Art, New York (1964). He had solo shows at the Minami Gallery, Tokyo (1961, 1965, 1968, 1972, 1975), and at Nihonbashi Gallery, the first Japanese gallery established in New York (1963). Yamaguchi died on April 27, 1983, in Tokyo.