On Kawara (1933–2014)

On Kawara, FEB 5, 2006, 2006, liquitex on canvas, 10“ x 13 1/2”.

I MET ON KAWARA ON OCT. 25, 1991 AT 4 PM. He lived just a few streets over from my apartment in SoHo, but it might as well have been miles and lifetimes away. Until that day, he only existed for me through his work, and I wasn’t sure what to expect. Before you meet an artist, you have an image of the person by way of what they do, which was particularly the case with On. To look at a Date painting from his “Today” series was, in a sense, to see him sitting quietly at his desk, from the back, of course, carefully brushing the ground on which he would paint the letters and numbers to record the date, a form of daily meditation. I wanted to borrow one of his Date paintings for a show I was organizing around the year 1969. Luckily I knew Katia Perlstein, slightly, and she was happy to make an introduction. Her father, Sylvio, the Belgian jeweler and diamond dealer, was an early collector of On’s, whom I was aware of by name and by his Antwerp address, probably from telegrams or postcards On had sent him. That afternoon, my image of On shifted from the art to the person, who turned out to be warm and engaging, talkative, but a good listener, serious and also easily amused, often by his own remarks. As I recall, he laughed and smoked a lot.

Years before, I had devoured the catalogue continuity/discontinuity 1963–1979, published for the show mounted by Björn Springfeldt at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm in 1980. What struck me most in that catalogue—and still does—is a section listing the subtitles that accompany the Date paintings. Commencing on Jan. 4, 1966, On would paint the date on which the painting was made, giving them subtitles taken from that day’s newspaper, or from events or observations in his own life. In the fall of 1972, however, he decided that the subtitles would simply identify the day of the week, deviating only by the language of the place where they were made—Monday, Tuesday, Mittwoch, Torsdag, Vendredo, Sábado, Dimanche. But with the earliest subtitles, there is a narrative that reveals much about this reclusive artist—his sense of humor, curiosity, absurdity, and pathos, how wondrous and troubled the marking of time could be—and situates his paintings within their historical context. There is at times a high level of poetry to be found there, even of autobiography, unexpected for someone who chose not to be photographed or interviewed, who shunned that sort of distraction, who was already present in his work and in the first person: I Met, I Went, I Read, I Got Up, I Am Still Alive. This aspect of presence and remove stands in stark contrast to artists today who willingly assist in the promotion of themselves and their work. In many ways, On was an artist from another time.

The majority of the subtitles gives us a strong sense of the sociocultural milieu and how politically charged that era had been:

Jan. 31, 1966 “U.S.A. began to bomb North Vietnam Again.”
June 17, 1966 “An 18-year-old girl, Dao Thi Tuyet, poured gasoline over herself in Saigon’s Buddhist Vien Hoa Dao Pagoda headquarters and struck a match.”
June 19, 1967 “Black Power in the United States.”
July 21, 1969 “Apollo 11 at the Distance of 238,857 Miles from the Earth”
Dec. 27, 1971 “An American flag flying upside down from the crown of Statue of Liberty on Liberty Island, New York.”

There are those that attest to his state of mind and physical well-being:

Mar. 20, 1966 “Taeko kissed me. I asked her ‘are you all right?’”
May 29, 1966 “I am afraid of my ‘Today’ paintings.”
Dec. 31, 1966 “To make a hole in a day as a nap.”
July 10, 1967 “I have a dull pain in my eyes.”
July 17, 1971 “I got up at 11.38 A.M. and painted this.”

His sense of humor and the absurd, often with references to pop culture, emerge:

Jan. 25, 1966 “Beatles and their neutrality.”
Apr. 10, 1966 “You can’t quite sentimentalize Easter.”
May 28, 1966 “Are your ideas on computers worth shouting about?”
Dec. 22, 1966 “‘The LSD I am proposing is literal.’ says Allen Ginsberg, in The East Village Other.’”
Mar. 4, 1967 “There’s too much lettuce in California now.”

There are interactions with other artists:

Feb. 4, 1967 “C. Oldenburg and J. Klein came to my studio this afternoon. In the evening I went to Oldenburg’s studio to ask him if I could use my asking him as the title of this painting.”
May 22, 1967 “Sol LeWitt and a pack of Pall Mall.”
May 23, 1967 “This afternoon Dan Graham dropped a letter into the mailbox at the corner of Eldridge and Grand Streets in New York.”
Nov. 28, 1967 “My letter from Ray Johnson was postmarked somewhere in New York City this afternoon.”
Mar. 29, 1968 “Roy Lichtenstein was wearing a red sweater this evening.”

On’s particular interests and their poignancy are revealed:

Feb. 14, 1967 “Da Vinci's manuscripts which were produced between 1491 and 1505.”
Feb. 22, 1967 “Laughter from beyond space.”
Jan. 7. 1970 “An extraordinary candy-stripe pattern has been found on a microscopic scale, in some lunar rocks.”
Jan. 23, 1970 “A death mask stolen, of James Joyce.”
Mar. 30, 1972 “A party of 28 Chinese table-tennis players in Ottawa, Canada.”

Many of the subtitles resound all these years later, and probably always will, but one stands out for all time:

Dec. 3, 1966 “A baby crying through history.”

Another catalogue that I had when we first met is from a project in which On participated, “18 Paris IV. 70,” initiated by the critic Michel Claura, comprising three consecutive parts. The invited artists were asked, over a brief period, to make, reconsider, and finalize a proposal, either changing or keeping their initial response, and On sent three telegrams. Considering the high Conceptualism of that time, On’s contribution is all the more startling.

The first telegram stated: “I AM NOT GOING TO COMMIT SUICIDE–DON'T WORRY.”
And the final message: “I AM GOING TO SLEEP–FORGET IT.”

The first made sense, in its reassurance that a person would not end his life. The second turned this upside down, for why would someone elicit concern having decided against such a drastic act? The third turns both on end in its matter-of-fact declaration to simply go to bed, advising the recipient to dismiss something he could not have put out of his thoughts so casually. As each telegram was delivered, Michel Claura must have grown increasingly perplexed. I’ve been thinking about those messages for thirty years now, and I still have no idea what On may have had in mind.

That day in 1991 when Katia Perlstein brought me to meet On, this is probably what I most wanted to ask him about, but I certainly did not. I was there for a specific reason, and since we had never met before I was on my best behavior. With an artist as guarded as On, or so I thought, you can’t expect him to begin revealing his secrets from the very first. Over the years, as we would get together now and then, particularly as we worked on the show, “Pictures of the Real World (In Real Time)” in ’94, he would tell me stories about the ways in which various aspects of his work had begun and were brought to a close, and he told them with little or no prompting on my part. These stories helped me to understand the coincidental nature of much of his work: that an art which was deliberate in its making and continued investigation often had quixotic or random points of arrival and departure. You could say the same of a life.

As we sat and talked that first afternoon, I recall that he smoked one cigarette after another. At one point there was a long gray ash dangling at the end of his cigarette which seemed, at any moment, about to collapse under the weight of its fragile composition. I thought: This is an image of time. And just as it was about to drop of its own accord, without taking any notice, On tapped lightly and ashes fell into the ashtray on the low table between us.

Early one morning this past July, a friend came into the kitchen and asked me if I had heard that On Kawara had died. I hadn’t and was taken by surprise. Everything was suddenly still and, suspended in the words just spoken, I was suddenly lost in that clarity of simultaneous comprehension and disbelief. Reflecting on the moment later, it occurred to me that this wasn’t an image of time but of consciousness itself, which is ultimately the only way to grasp the meaning and depth of On’s life and work.

A final subtitle comes to mind:

July 25, 1966 “I make love to the days.”

Bob Nickas is a critic and curator based in New York.