On Kawara (1933–2014)

TO SPEAK OF THE WORK OF On Kawara is, in certain respects, to speak of the life—and now, of the death. The artist’s passing deepens an absence that some might say was already there, for he spent the last half century strategically avoiding the public eye. The nature of his art is fairly well known, although it is generally seen in small, refined doses, and its visibility comes and goes: But for an ongoing installation of paintings at Dia:Beacon, the work is shown sporadically in galleries and museums and otherwise can be hard to find.

Kawara was a young star of the postwar Tokyo avant-garde, but he came to consider his early work—precise post-Surrealist representations of bodies (and body parts) floating through “bathroom” and “warehouse” spaces—to be a closed book. In essays he wrote for the Japanese art press during the 1950s, his frustration with the limitations of that work (and much of the new art that surrounded him in Japan) is clear. In 1964, after a period of travel, first to Mexico City and then Paris, Kawara settled in New York, where his friends and acquaintances came to include practitioners of Conceptual art. There he reinvented himself. In 1966, his work began to take a form that would never change. Several categories emerged, including calendars, maps, and lists or inventories, as well as personal communications in the form of tourist postcards and telegrams, each bearing the same message: respectively, I GOT UP AT (produced with a rubber stamp and followed by the time at which said event transpired) and I AM STILL ALIVE. Such works are markers that designate little more—yet nothing less—than Kawara’s very being in the world. At the heart of this practice lies painting: the “Today” series, consisting of paintings inscribed in white acrylic paint against a monochrome ground solely with the date on which the work was made. The palette (variants of very dark gray, blue, and red) and the range of dimensions were predetermined and strict, although colors were hand mixed, and the paintings were produced according to a quasi-rote process supported by fastidious technique. A painting was finished in the course of a given day, or it was destroyed. On some days, two, and very occasionally three were made. Many are stored in hand-formed boxes lined with a cutting from the day’s press.

These terms are simple enough on their face. Yet, in attempting to compose a responsible account of Kawara’s work, it is difficult to be concise. The Kawara system is a superbly rarefied, gamelike construction nesting within the confines—the coordinates—of the everyday. Kawara the artist is author, subject, and object of scrutiny, yet over the course of decades, Kawara the man remained deliberately unrevealed. The subjectivity of the work is explicit, but its personal content consists exclusively of a schematic account of the artist’s whereabouts. This anonymity is critical to the abstract dimension of the work’s systemic form. Kawara’s various applications of the daily press (cuttings pasted inside of a painting’s storage box or mounted on notebook pages for the eighteen three-ring binders that comprise the series called “I Read”) served to assimilate the newspaper’s representation of the events of the world to the habits of daily life. The artist’s travels subjected the temporal predictability of the system to the variable of place; Kawara’s movements—he made paintings in over 130 cities, with the date composed in the language of the city in question—exhibit the restless momentum of quasinomadic travel.

The rhythm of the passing days, which structures the work, also establishes a kind of chronological momentum, one that substitutes for anything like formal or stylistic “development.” Yet the work One Million Years, begun in 1969, which consists of two sets of binders with lists of numbers (“One Million Years Past” and “One Million Years Future”) and a public reading that often coincides with an exhibition of Kawara’s other work, sets the day-to-day nature of his activity, which might be said to amount to so much record-keeping, into an unmovable frame of vast, nonhistorical time.

In preparing a forthcoming exhibition of Kawara’s work for the Guggenheim Museum in New York, I worked with the artist. Despite his warm cooperation, he remained an elusive figure. Our familiarity was distant—as much a case of affection and respect, even reverence, on my part as anything else. But this pull between closeness and distance is of a piece with one’s sensation of the work’s power. The genius of Kawara’s practice is that its existentialism is virtually nonrhetorical, a pure expression of the system as game. Yet these means expose a paradox: The everyday, both in personal and in world-historical terms, can be minutely and tenaciously recorded, yet given the inevitability of death, the significance of that which is mundane can still appear to be unfathomable and, perhaps some days more than others, undeniably absurd. I say that, of course, in the wake—and under the influence—of the artist’s unexpected departure. Kawara would never have openly confirmed or denied such a response to his work. We may see fit to believe that the art possesses far-reaching implications, but claims regarding exactly how or why are strictly ours to make. For Kawara, while the rules of his practice were rigorous, and making the work closely resembled an act of meditation, aesthetic activity itself was wholly without pretense. Never was gravity more lightly borne.

Jeffrey Weiss is senior curator at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York and an adjunct professor of fine arts at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts.