PRINT January 2015


KEEPING TRACK was what On Kawara did best. Whether it was paintings of calendar dates or leather-bound volumes of maps and years, he elevated due diligence to high art. But while his Conceptualist contemporaries tended to vigilantly police the type and number of references in their works, Kawara named names and places in ways that made such data seem like clues to an unfathomable mystery. These snippets of information supposedly granted us access to the inner life of the famously publicity-shy artist, whose silence many regarded as an invitation to consider him an oracle.

It would have been hard not to. Dates, maps, lists: All took on a poetic cast when seen as a Kawara telegram, painting, or postcard. The works looked as if they had a great deal to say about the world in which they and their audiences lived. Yet if viewers found abstract ideas about life, death, mobility, and communication more comprehensible after experiencing one of Kawara’s works, this response had as much to do with his materials and the forms those materials eventually took as with the information he conveyed. The artist’s death this past summer brings a new urgency to thinking about these materials and forms, whose use reflected his larger commitment to pondering vast, immaterial phenomena as if they were tangible substances.

On one level, the relentless insistence on mining Kawara’s works for clues, on reading them for meaning, reflects the once-precarious relationship between painting and Conceptual art. Early next month, at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, more than 270 of Kawara’s works will go on view in an exhibition organized by senior curator Jeffrey Weiss with curatorial assistant Anne Wheeler. Not a retrospective—Kawara’s oeuvre defies the definitiveness implied by that term—it will nevertheless be one of the most comprehensive surveys of this singular artist’s work to date, and will provide a welcome opportunity to broadly consider his practice as a material and linguistic-conceptual enterprise. For to privilege the latter over the former is to miss the point, as Kawara himself suggests in the photographs he took of his own works, particularly those belonging to the “Today” series, which he began in 1966 and continued until 2013. Conventionally known as Date Paintings, these are the monochromes on which Kawara painted the day, month, and year of execution in the language of the country where a painting was made. One of Kawara’s photos shows a painting lying insouciantly on a narrow hotel-room desk, wedged between a pack of matches and a briefcase. The painting is pitched toward the surface of the photograph, an orientation that emphasizes its occupation of physical space. Its thickness resonates with the volumes of the matchbox and briefcase.

Other photographers, notably Candida Höfer, seemed to take Kawara’s cue by emphasizing the presence of each painting as a freestanding object. Between 2004 and 2007, Höfer took several photographs of Date Paintings held in private collections; all highlight the quality of attention each work commands. Under the severe lighting of a corporate boardroom or against the overly choreographed bric-a-brac of a manicured sitting room, every Date Painting stands out because of how it cuts the space down to scale. And this is not necessarily human scale, for one of the striking aspects of each painting is how it refuses anthropocentricity despite the handheld portability its dimensions suggest. Rather, the painting establishes a scale at odds with what is suggested by the objects around it, which identify the room—and, by extension, its human occupants—as the measure according to which space is defined. No matter how inconspicuous its location or elaborate its surroundings, the painting demands that we see it first, partly because of the prominent central placement of letters and numbers ordinarily seen at the margins of a printed page or on the face of an alarm clock. Painted in white against a usually dark background, the letters and numbers stand out all the more starkly, positioned as they are in the middle of pictorial space. The effect differs substantially from other painterly negotiations of text; unlike the paintings of John Baldessari, for example, whose aphoristic sentences make it difficult to read the work as painting qua painting, Kawara’s canvases evince his pointed devotion to the medium in which they were created. Separating medium from art never held the same allure for him that it did for his Conceptualist peers.

Witness a sequence of photographs by Henning Weidemann that breaks down the production of one of Kawara’s paintings into a step-by-step process of interaction between paint, brush, knife, and canvas. The images are especially remarkable for so clearly illuminating the works’ curious tension between meaning and materiality. Perhaps most striking of all is the image of a dark monochrome canvas on which the artist has just begun to paint his dates in white. After the drama of that initial contact, subsequent photos show how Kawara paints as if building each character, thus making plain the inherently constructed, synthetic nature of written language. The longer we look, the easier it is to discern the faintly penciled lines that determine where and how the artist moves his brush. Subsequent images show the tactility of the work becoming less evident, as painted curves and edges develop into letters and numbers.

But even if tactility gave way to other perceptions over the course of a work’s production, the objecthood of painting was never very far from Kawara’s thoughts. By choosing to store his paintings in boxes lined with newspapers proclaiming that day’s notable events, Kawara implied that painting was in fact critically defined by its suspension between objecthood and a putative capacity to bear meaning. That this is an unresolved proposition is duly borne out by the various installations of the Date Paintings. The most common approach is to display paintings of equal size and color in a single row, separated at uniform intervals. Each work reads as a modular unit conforming to an organized structure, a display tactic ostensibly meant to affirm the Date Paintings’ connection to Minimalism. The sense of these works as paintings is suppressed, an elision that other installations have sought to address by placing at variable intervals paintings of different sizes and colors across a continuous white wall. Yet this partial recovery of their objecthood can sometimes read as decorative. The vicissitudes of various modes of display may explain why Kawara preferred not knowing how his works were shown.

THE CANDOR with which Kawara articulated the unstable division between matter and representation—and, in parallel, literalism and metaphor—is in fact one of his greatest strengths. Like other artists who came of age in the immediate wake of World War II, he found that the imperative to respond to the devastation was overwhelming. And when it came to representing that which was irretrievably beyond description, how mattered far more than what. In 1950s Japan, “reportage painters” revisited prewar engagements with Surrealism and Expressionism to articulate the horrors of war and its aftermath. Kawara, however, turned away from the didactic earnestness of reportage painting, instead producing works that created more ambiguous viewing experiences. In Butcher’s Wife, 1952, a kitchen is strewn with dismembered body parts. A housewife’s prim apron is stained with vermilion splatters, its saturation standing out against grim black lines and shadowy grays. The splash of color seems almost gratuitous, a reminder that any attempt at representing trauma is doomed. As if wary of seeming too predictably histrionic, Kawara followed up with Pregnant Woman, 1954, a work best described as perceptually slippery. Background tile appears to protrude, rather than recede into the distance. There are no true interiors, only surfaces. To steady ourselves as we look into a space that seems to both spin and pulsate, we try to latch on to the dismembered body parts that seem firmly welded into the tile and that, explicit as they are, still look less like gory entrails than like compositional anchors that might give us some footing in this world of perpetual disjunction. Our efforts are repulsed by the smooth curves of the heads and breasts, carefully shaded as if to appear dimly lit from within.

Although Kawara would all but disavow the works he made while in Japan, they nevertheless lay bare his engagement with the issue of representation. Settling in New York near the end of 1964, when immigration for nonwhites was still controlled by quotas based on racist assumptions regarding national origins, Kawara must have encountered a different burden of representation, one fellow expatriate Yayoi Kusama openly challenged in her 1966 performance Walking Piece. Garishly clad in a brightly flowered kimono, she turned the shopworn cliché of Asian female exoticism into a florid species of camp. Kawara, too, walked the Manhattan streets, but his travels were recorded only as thin red lines on a photocopied map in “I Went,” 1968–79. His reticence means we can only speculate about his intentions. But he also makes it impossible for viewers not to notice the absence of any reference to national and racial origin in his work at a time and place defined largely by radical changes to immigration and civil rights policies.

Kawara avoided identity politics in general, but avoidance was not denial. War threw into stark relief the devastating consequences of seeing the world as a collection of states and regions whose boundaries needed constant policing. As so vividly suggested by the abundance of severed limbs in Kawara’s Bathroom drawings, 1953–54, the work that preceded Pregnant Woman, this worldview regarded individual bodies as mere cannon fodder. Also at issue was his ambivalence about being identified in ways that would preclude other associations and connections. Kawara made this plain in Code, 1965, a suite of retranscribed love letters. In each missive, individual letters are replaced by color-coded diagonal pencil marks; Kawara followed a similar procedure in Code, “Voice from Moon”, 2011, to translate Neil Armstrong’s famous 1969 transmission from the lunar surface. In these works, even distribution of colors and the uniform shape and length of each line generate a pattern that requires a different kind of reading. We look at the lines as if they were script, at least in the beginning. But soon our eyes wander away from the neat horizontal rows, preferring instead to absorb the colors or to roam freely around the spaces between each row.

Made the same year Kawara produced Code, the painting LAT. 31˚ 25′N LONG. 8˚ 41′E, 1965 shows in large white type a specific longitude and latitude. The coordinates face us directly and at first seem almost to demand that we consult the nearest atlas to figure out what this jumble of letters and symbols means (the answer: somewhere in the Sahara). Standing a little longer, however, one becomes increasingly uncertain whether the text must mean anything at all. We instead see the consistently painted texture of the surface, or how the a in the abbreviation for latitude expands somewhat to make the top row of text perfectly align with the bottom. The more time we spend staring directly at these coordinates, the more likely we are to lose sight of what they represent. We become increasingly conscious of the discrepancy between the certainty with which we first read the notations—even if we didn’t know what location they were indicating, we knew they indicated a location—and our eventual uncertainty as to whether they in fact refer to any specific place.

A similar indeterminacy underpins the telegrams Kawara began to send to various acquaintances in 1969, each bearing the words I AM STILL ALIVE. Recipients had to dig for the message otherwise buried in the effluvia of addresses, places, and codes. Is the telegram pure, phatic communication in which the words’ meaning is incidental at best? Is it also the opposite, a formal gesture comprising little black lines and curves? The flimsiness of the telegram paper, so easily ripped, also raises the question of what, exactly, counts as substantial, either physically or psychologically. Kawara was not so literal-minded as to suggest that communication amounts to no more than the sum of what can be seen or felt. But he appears to have been sure of communication’s dependence on the minor vagaries of material things. The telegrams and postcards make clear the importance of data’s sensory dimensions. The authority of such data, by virtue of how objective it looks, depends on the visual, tactile, and aural experience it generates.

Yet both the dramatically pared-down appearance of LAT. 31˚ 25′ N LONG. 8˚ 41′E, 1965 and the questionable legibility of his telegrams ascribe to Kawara a certain skepticism regarding the nature of information. His early, almost immediate, rejection of reportage painting and its grandiose presumptions to represent trauma implied as much already. One cannot believe everything one is told. But to protect himself, perhaps, from letting his skepticism crumble into cynicism masquerading as reflexivity, he boldly took on the core definition of information: an arrangement of things meant to convey particular ideas. Kawara chose to face the fact of his foreignness by providing information in a way that would pare away as much ambiguity as possible and render his credibility unassailable. In “I Read,” 1966–95; “I Met,” 1968–79; and “I Went,” he tracked what he read, whom he met, and where he went more assiduously than any surveillance officer. Each work is a multivolume set of compendiums, pages and pages of names neatly typewritten in rows and then bound for posterity. Although they occupy the same general field as other forms of artistic accounting, such as Dan Graham’s Schema (March 1966), 1966–67, Kawara’s works specifically attempt to flesh out the materiality of duration. His bulky tomes are less portable than commemorative; everyday activities otherwise easily forgotten now take on the weight, if not the scale, of events.

KAWARA’S SELF-IMPOSED RESTRICTIONS about what materials and processes to use cultivated in viewers a remarkable level of trust. No one, for example, ever doubts that he actually made each Date Painting on the date that canvas shows. The restrictions were also a pledge of allegiance to materials. Using a rubber stamp, Kawara impressed the words I GOT UP AT, followed by the time he woke up on a particular day, on postcards that he sent to acquaintances in different parts of the world. The typeface is large and bold enough to encourage readers to speak the words aloud. As with the telegrams, what these short missives meant was less important than that these words were stamped and sent, and read by their recipients. Even more to the point, the works underscored that such actions are necessarily affected by the materials used. If the thin, easily torn paper of the telegram appears to buckle under the weight of the densely spaced text, the sturdier material of the postcard offers a surer resistance to the pressure with which one imagines Kawara stamping his words. But both communiqués are forms of proof, even if they are probative of nothing other than the fact that was marked or written on an inert material support. In the tumultuous periods through which Kawara lived, they seem to propose, producing such evidence was as much as anyone could do.

Consider a well-known image of the artist’s Thirteenth Street studio from 1966. It is shortly after Kawara began the “Today” series to which his Date Paintings belong. A continuous frieze of smaller paintings lines the wall at what appears to be roughly eye level, mirrored by a similar frieze of works on the floor. The surface area of each latter painting roughly quadruples that of those on the wall. Slightly off center is a Date Painting just large enough to raise suspicions about its scale: Should it be read in the same way as a public signboard? That it appears to compete with the height of the studio’s brick wall suggests that Kawara intended to take his painting outside, to have it compete with all the other demands on our attention so rife in spaces intended for large groups of people. Indeed, the space around each Date Painting has always been equally important as the painting itself, if not more so. If the “Today” works have been grouped with post-Minimalist art (as was the case in the 1970 Tokyo Biennale, one of the first major illustrations of Minimalism’s global reach), it is because of how the paintings appeared to emphasize the importance of the negative space around them. This was as true of smaller works hung close to one another, so that the wall spaces between the works read as intervals, as it was of larger works.

The photograph of Kawara’s studio points to how seriously the artist regarded the relationships between size and scale, object and architecture, space and time. Accustomed as we are to seeing dates printed in small type in a newspaper or on a phone or computer screen, the magnified letters, numbers, and symbols on those Date Paintings measuring more than five by seven feet do appear to function like the characters on signboards. The text is large enough to be seen from a distance. But then we notice the thickness of the canvas, how it protrudes into space. Its presence emphasizes the ways in which the canvas edges isolate the date within the rectangle it forms, producing a viewing experience comparable to examining a specimen under an enlarging lens. All of this looking requires time or, rather, slowness. Calling the viewer’s attention to temporality is, after all, among the more convincing rationales for making a painting of the sort of information we usually discover or record in seconds. Kawara’s habit of lining some of the boxes in which earlier Date Paintings were stored with newspaper pages was a way to prolong time further. Many were front pages, featuring some catastrophe or other major world event.

TIME MATTERED. But so did scale, not only of objects but also of information, and of the relationships catalyzed by information’s reception and transmission. The series “I Got Up,” 1968–79; “I Am Still Alive,” 1969–2000; and “I Met” were fundamentally concerned with inverting worldviews centered on the ideological units of nation, culture, or region. In Kawara’s hands, the world is treated as a collection of bits. Photographic excerpts or snippets combine to make a single image, while the pages of printed teletyped words, numbers, and maps are joined only through the voluntary movements and actions of a loose collection of individuals. “I Went” is about literally making a mark on the world. Thin and bright, the red line recording Kawara’s comings and goings puts the vastness of the world’s great cities into perspective. That the marked maps are bound into portable, stackable volumes further irrupts the scalar order by inviting reflection on the contradiction between the vastness of the actual distances these maps depict and how those distances are pictured on flat sheets collated into handheld objects. The work casts doubt on the division between the local and the global, and was produced well before it became fashionable to imagine the world in relation to these poles. In such projects, Kawara redeemed at least one of the promises implicit in the larger Conceptualist project, as reflected by the intention of artists like Douglas Huebler, who sought to photograph everyone alive: the production of a globalism based on the coincidental, distinctly unspectacular connections between people in different parts of the world.

Of all Kawara’s works, it was One Million Years [Past], 1970–71, and One Million Years [Future], 1980–98, that best succeeded in emphasizing why the scale of individuals might still matter, even when living in a world increasingly defined by the pressures of globalization. Past refers to the million years prior to the artwork’s conception in 1969, while Future refers to the million-year period commencing in 1981. Printed in small type in neat columns on US letter-size paper, the numbers indicating each year are bound into volumes—infinity compressed into books. The insistent, almost inexorable compositional order brings to mind Hanne Darboven’s One Month, One Year, One Century, 1971. But where Darboven played alchemist by turning a single date into a potentially limitless universe of durations, Kawara took refuge in limits. For instance, he broke down the vastness of One Million Years by having the years recited aloud. In these events, a male and female volunteer sit next to each other in a glass booth and take turns reading from the books. There is a sharp contradiction between the banal, almost deadening, regularity of how the numbers appear on paper and what actually takes place in the confined, airless space of the performers’ booth. Brief moments suddenly feel much longer than they are, and as time passes, it becomes increasingly difficult to read the year correctly. Tongues stumble over numbers as they become larger, more reminiscent of sums of money than years. Patience wears thin. Minds wander. And then one hesitates for just a second too long, causing one’s partner to lose his or her momentum. Pulse rates and heartbeats accelerate as mild embarrassment takes over. One’s self-consciousness becomes acute, as does one’s sense of a shared present that feels much longer than the units used to measure its duration. Triggered by an engagement with paper, sound, and space, these minor anxieties illuminate how Kawara put the rationality of the world to the test: Through materials, intentions and knowledge are transformed beyond recognition.

The larger-than-life crises Kawara experienced directly during World War II and the tumult of the ’60s, as well as indirectly through the events splashed on the newspapers he so diligently amassed, showed that life was irrevocably physical and therefore irrevocably terminal. But by freely recognizing this terminality, he was able to conceive of a different scale against which to consider time—thus One Million Years. That the work is experienced in two separate registers, as sprawling library and intimate performance, compels its viewers to understand that the world is determined neither by the vastness of globalization and its pressures nor by an inward-facing anthropocentricity. Kawara spent a lifetime searching for the point at which materials could best invoke those feelings, beliefs, and conditions paradoxically defined by their immateriality. Whether he fulfilled his goals is less relevant than his mining of the interface between how information appears and how viewers interact with it. This was Kawara’s métier. And it is what enables his works to live on, both as revitalized traces of history and as prospective ruins of a future to come.

“On Kawara—Silence” will be on view at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York Feb. 6–May 3.

Joan Kee is an associate professor in the history of art department at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.