New York

On Kaware

This show featured five works from On Kawara’s “Today” series: JULY 16, 1969, JULY 20, 1969, JULY 21, 1969, FEB. 27, 1987, and MAY 1, 1987. Each work in the series consists of the month, day, and year of a single date, and was made entirely on the date depicted. Letters and numbers are in white acrylic on black acrylic grounds, and are painted with the deadpan impassivity of a sign painter. Although done by hand, it is as if they were manufactured mechanically, made by following the directions in an instruction manual. For example, according to the press release: “Each painting takes eight to nine hours, or more, to execute and is recorded in a looseleaf journal that includes a calendar of the year and, sometimes, notes—both written in the language of the country where the first day of the year was spent.” There is a certain idiocy to Kawara’s endeavor, the idiot obsessiveness of a madman, which, when extended over the more than 20 years that he has spent on this project, pushes the artist’s entire being into a symbolic zone. Kawara may be viewed as a human clock ticking by means of a dialectical pendulum.

Kawara’s white figures on black, with the sides of the canvas also painted black, permit a reading of the picture as object: a plaque or marker in memorium to a date, to the passage of time. For each one, Kawara takes a portion of that day’s newspaper and stores it in a closed box—often with the painting itself (in the case of the smaller works). Such memorializing of the past in the present with a painting that literally functions as a time capsule implies that time implodes or collapses into itself. This suggests a simultaneity of all moments, thereby stopping time to create a metaphor of timelessness, or imaginably, a place beyond time and therefore beyond death. In so doing, Kawara creates a conceptual space that embodies a kind of classicism, with its attendant myths about eternity, stasis, and teleological order.

Kawara’s calendar is also a language, a language developed to impose an order on the world. His calendar is more than a measuring device, for it demonstrates that all calendars are primarily a construct of mind. By codifying time, calendars organize the infinite and function as a bandage over it. This attempt to grasp the infinite is an attempt to name the unnameable, and therefore evokes the sublime. In this respect, Kawara’s paintings show their connection to his own Japanese culture—specifically to Zen, with its koans (nonrational, paradoxical statements), which are metaphors for emptiness and the void. The sublime posits a Romanticism that functions dialectically to Kawara’s “timeless” classicism and infers, with the artist’s minimal means, an alternative definition of dialectic: that each thing contains its opposite inside itself.

Claudia Hart