On Kawara's date paintings explained

The Japanese conceptual artist died last week but his date paintings allow him to transcend history
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One Thing, 1965, Viet-Nam by On Kawara
One Thing, 1965, Viet-Nam by On Kawara

It’s hard to write an obituary for On Kawara, the seminal Japanese conceptual artist who passed away last week. Kawara resisted formal biography, foregoing interview requests – even when it came to our monograph. Instead the artist offered a deeper and simpler meditation on the individual’s place within our era. Most famously he painted his Today series - simple acrylic on canvas renderings of that day’s date – from the 4 January 1966 up until the final years of his life.

The Today series also complicated an obituary, as we draw up our own dates – Jan. 2, 1933 – Jul. 10, 2014 – following his death last week. Yet, as the writer and curator René Denizot explains in our monograph, the date paintings could help the artist transcend his earthly limits. Denizot writes:

 

On Kawara, canvases from the 'Today Series' (1966 - 2014)
On Kawara, canvases from the 'Today Series' (1966 - 2014)

In the Today series, the date on which the painting is made – always completed on the day it is begun - is inscribed at the centre of each canvas, and is the sole subject of the work. This is work classified only by a series of numbers, differentiated simply through format and colour, the date, and the language of the country in which it was made. The originality of each work, its small difference from the others, becomes a possibility for a confrontation with the daily events of the world. Since its meaning is not predetermined, the real work of the piece lies ahead, in the encounter with the viewer, when it is exposed to the world. The vision it offers us is a moment in world history, yet it is an unnamed moment. It’s meaning remains to be seen it remains to be spoken. It remains to be inhabited. It becomes a sign, and its enigmatic presence offers a horizon of the consciousness to be occupied and interpreted by the viewer.

 

On Kawara's 13th Street Studio, New York (1966)
On Kawara's 13th Street Studio, New York (1966)

“Consciousness is, indeed, the true event of any exhibition. Exhibitions venture onto the threshold between appearance and disappearance. Each work is placed in a box, arranged within the chronology of facts, encased in the history of art. The evidence that this is a work of art is often offered only in the artifice of invented death: museumifaction/mummification. But the real evidence of an artwork is that it is a sign of life. The work is of value only if it exposes, beyond date and time, a rupture in the present: the force of consciousness occurs precisely at this moment of encounter. Each piece is a finished product, a point in a calendar. But in the contemplation of the series of days devoted to the task of making these paintings, we glimpse a sign of life beyond the dated works themselves, on the horizon of an unlimited time: an act of rupture within the continuity of time.”

 

 June 19, 1967, from the 'Today Series' (1966 - 2014) by On Kawara
June 19, 1967, from the 'Today Series' (1966 - 2014) by On Kawara

And so, though the Today series might have ended with Kawara’s passing, the presence of this pioneering conceptual artist lives on. For a richer understanding of his life and work, buy a copy of our On Kawara monograph and for a more general grounding in conceptual art take a look at this overview.


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