New York

On Kawara

In 1954, when he was barely 7,500 days old, On Kawara exhibited, in Tokyo, a series of drawings of scarred, dismembered bodies. Coming only two years after US-imposed censorship laws were lifted in Japan and a mere nine after the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, the drawings—empathetic, dramatic, grotesque—were everything that Kawara’s later Conceptualist work is, apparently, not.

The nebulous link between Kawara’s early and mature work, often thought of as unexpressive and detached, was clarified in “Paintings of 40 Years,” even though the show contained only the latter. Three panels hung alone in the front room, announcing, in white paint against a maroon background, ONE THING, 1965, and VIET-NAM, respectively. The triptych initiated—yet is not considered part of— the artist’s well-known “Today” series, in which dates themselves are the only text. But the two bits of, as it were, effaced information—ONE THING and VIET-NAM—and their associations (literality and primacy in the first instance; napalm, self-immolating Buddhist monks, and a lying Texan president in the second) remained as traces of Kawara’s earliest work, altering the impression conveyed by the later date paintings, which made up the rest of the show.

Kawara’s fascination with dates (and, more generally, numbers) has always had philosophical, mathematical, and even quasi-spiritual components, and it is these to which the elusive artist lays claim most avowedly. But in the light of the recontextualization engendered by the ONE THING and VIET-NAM that bookend the 1965, the connection between the existential predicament of being thrown into the world (amid a confusing sea of figures) and a certain kind of politics—call it a politics of trauma—asserted itself, even if the relation between ONE THING and VIET-NAM is itself unclear, and even if the work could just as easily be viewed as a warning against indexicality and historical contextualization.

Arranged in clusters and allowed plenty of breathing room, the “Today” paintings—spanning January 25, 1966 to June 10, 2004 and produced according to the rule that they must be finished by midnight or destroyed—looked phenomenal, in every sense of the term. The dates, always white and usually presented in a sans serif font, are set against different colors (blue, black, gray, red, and brown) in the language and date-recording conventions of the locality in which they were painted, so for example, 15 AGO. 68 was painted in Mexico City and 12 GEN. 1990 in Barcelona. If a country does not use Roman script, Kawara presents the date (as in 24 MAJ. 1983) in the “universal” language of Esperanto. The exhibition catalogue reveals how the paintings have been stored with a newspaper, frequently displaying a headline from their date of creation, giving the “Today” series’ early works such secondary titles as “Man Walks on Moon” (JULY 20, 1969) and “A limited withdrawal of civilians and soldiers from army headquarters at Long Tieng, Laos began today after the United States–supported base nearby at Sam Thong fell to 2,000 North Vietnamese troops” (MAR. 18, 1970).

Just as ONE THING and VIET-NAM were, by 1966, abstracted or subtracted into the mere facticity of dates in “Today,” so “A limited withdrawal . . . ” subtitularly becomes, after 1971, simply “Wednesday” (or Freitag, or Lundo). But the trace of a newspaper headline that literally accompanies many of these paintings discloses the explicitly “traumatic” political dimension of the work, which can hit home with the force of an unexpected blast—no, SEP. 11, 2001 is not shown here—but more frequently seems to take place in another orbit (Vietnam, the moon, perhaps Iraq), into whose gravitational field one cannot help being pulled.

The “Today” paintings may be, as Kawara himself has suggested, a form of “meditation, a routine conducive to the loss of ego” and may indeed alert us to “fundamental truths” about the passing of time. But if, in the voice of the impertinent youngest child at the Passover table, we ask Kawara, “Why is this night (or day) different from all others?” the response might be found not with recourse to “timeless” truths but, at least in part, in the eternally return- ing traumatic eruption of the new(s), which survives, passes over, even as it is effaced.

Nico Israel