On Kawara

(Karya, Japan, 1933 – New York, 2014)


Japanese-born artist, working in New York and all over the world. He was among the first generation of conceptual artists, for whom the medium of painting was a point of departure. In 1966, Kawara inaugurated the “Today” series with a “date painting” bearing only a date, Jan.4.1966, on its monochrome surface. The painting was accompanied by a hand-made cardboard box containing a newspaper clipping of the day about the New York traffic strike. The “Today” series used to operate in three dimensions: painting, painted object, and conceptual incarnation of time and space. White letters in the painting acted as a figurative representation on a dark background, whereas the background itself, though it was always even and monochrome, was the result of a typical painterly action – the application of four to five layers of paint, oscillating between grey-browns, grey-greens or blues. However, as the unframed sides of the picture were painted too, the object-like character of the picture was also stressed, especially as assisted by cardboard boxes.

What was most interesting in the “date” paintings was their relation to the place and time of execution. Each work of the “Today” series had to be accomplished within the time span of the day of its date. As they were made in different countries, the typeface and the way of abbreviating the date differed according to the local convention. The clippings were also chosen accordingly from among the local issues of the press. Consecutively, in the sixties and seventies, On Kawara conceived other forms of representing time relations in his art. Between 2 October 1966 and 17 September 1979 he was collecting press clippings in the “I read” series. In 1968, he produced a “100 years calendar” of his life. With a yellow colour, he was marking each passing day, with green – a day of creating one picture, with red – a day when he painted more than one. Other series listed the people the artist met on a certain day (“I met”, May 10th 1968 – Sept.17th 1979) and recorded the artist’s daily itineraries, marked with a red ballpoint pen on photocopied maps of the cities he was visiting (“I went”, June 1st 1968 – Sept.17th 1979). The clippings, the lists of names and the maps were composed in the form of various notebooks. His other projects were more connected with the mail-art activity. In the “I got up” series (May 10th 1968 – Sept.17th 1979) he was training a custom of sending two postcards a day to his friends signed with his stamp, transmitting the information about the exact time of his getting up. In 1970, On Kawara responded to the letter inviting him to have an exhibition with a telegram “I am still alive”. Since then, he has sent hundreds of telegrams with this message to selected recipients. Apart from the “I am still alive” series, On Kawara concluded the other actions in 1979, when he was robbed of his briefcase in which he was carrying his rubber stamp.

All of the artist’s projects have an existential dimension connected with his lifetime experiences (his travels, circle of friends, day schedule). However, they do not bear any hint of subjectivity. There is no trace of emotion or any personal relation to the recorded events. The passing of time is mercilessly measured by objective means and packed as archival units. No hierarchy of events, no evaluation is implemented. The flow of time takes on the shape of a grainy matter, punctuated by everyday activities. No day of the past is lost in memory, but the only difference between them is the position in the index.


Dorota Monkiewicz



On Kawara

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