Kumi Sugai was born in 1919 in Kobe to a family of Japanese classical musicians. He painted his first canvas at the age of nine. He enters the Osaka Art School in 1933. He was part of the first generation of 20th-century Japanese artists to become acquainted with Western painting techniques, but he also explored both typography and Japanese calligraphy, important in his subsequent work
Sugai left school early and started working in commercial advertising for the Hankyudentetsu Electric Railway Company from until 1945. In parallel during the 1940’s, Sugai gradually becomes acquainted with the work of European artists such as Max Ernst, Paul Klee and Joan Miró. At the end of that decade, he discovers the work of the American artists Alexander Calder and Jackson Pollock through art magazines.
He devotes himself to painting in his studio in Kobe before moving to Paris in 1952. He enrolls at the ‘Académie de la Grande Chaumière’ and is introduced by sculptor Tajiri to the members of the Cobra group. He becomes friend with Jacques Doucet and Corneille.
Sugai is close to the Art Informel mouvement and is supported by the critics Jean-Clarence Lambert and Roger Van Gindertael. He has his first solo exhibition at the Craven Gallery in 1953. From 1955 onwards, he learns engraving, especially lithography with Jean Pons in Paris, this activity becomes a fully-fledged art form for the artist.
In 1960 he received the prize of the National Museum of Modern Art in Tokyo at the International Biennial of Engraving.
Considered part of the ‘Nouvelle École de Paris’ and ‘Nouveau Réalisme’ movements, he began to move away from the ‘abstraction lyrique’ in 1962. Shifting from calligraphic organic motifs, mainly monochrome, to geometric imagery, his abstract art is described as "hard-edge". He then creates in large formats and series.
Sugai is amongst the first Japanese artists of his generation to become familiar with Western painting techniques. Sugai died in 1996 in Kobe.