New York

On Kawara, 26. ÁG. 1995, acrylic on canvas, 10 x 13". From the series “Today,” 1966–.

On Kawara, 26. ÁG. 1995, acrylic on canvas, 10 x 13". From the series “Today,” 1966–.

On Kawara

On Kawara, 26. ÁG. 1995, acrylic on canvas, 10 x 13". From the series “Today,” 1966–.

This year, On Kawara will enter his eighth decade of being still alive. For more than half his life, he has been producing the rigidly formulaic “Today” paintings, his most enduring body of work. The series remains key (and is the earliest) among the diarizing projects he began between the mid-1960s and the early ’70s––from the cryptic, deadpan telegrams that broadcast the quotidian facts of his life or confirmed his continuing existence (“I Am Still Alive,” 1970–ca. 2005) to the postcards that announce when he rose from bed (“I Got Up,” 1968–79). Now numbering in the thousands, the “Today” canvases each display the date of their creation in white, sans-serif font on a monochrome ground. The artist eschews personal details yet allows the viewer to trace his location at different points in time, since the dates are rendered according to the dating conventions and language of the country in which the painting was made.

“Date Painting(s) in New York and 136 Other Cities,” presented more than 150 entries from “Today.” One wing of the gallery hosted canvases created in New York City, these in an assortment of colors and sizes, their dates commencing January 4, 1966, and continuing into 2012, with new ones added during the course of the exhibition; another wing offered a selection of date paintings made in other cities, all much smaller, at five by seven inches. (Painting at this scale was a requirement of working on the road: Kawara needed to transport the works home.) The canvases’ varying colors—red and blue, but mostly black—proved to be the most eye-catching aspect of the show, the capricious choice of color always creating a compelling friction against Kawara’s rigid format and the self-imposed rule that each work must be finished before midnight or be destroyed.

In addition to these selections from “Today,” Kawara also exhibited One Hundred Years—20th Century “24,845 days,” 2004, a silk-screened calendar encompassing the entire twentieth century, on which the artist has marked each day of his life with a yellow dot. For every day he completed a date painting, he added a green dot; for each day he completed more than one painting, a red dot. And an adjacent calendar extended the progression into the twenty-first century, with new dots were added throughout the show’s run. The some 29,000 tiny yellow marks could have been taken as a morbid countdown, perhaps an existential or eschatological commentary about “the end” (which feels particularly apropos in 2012). Yet, the “Today” series has never simply evoked his end, or our end, but rather has proposed questions about endlessness itself––about that which is eternal or unchanging.

Such philosophical and spiritual issues aside (though they have always been of great import to Kawara), the show also made a case for the series’ very unusual status in our current moment: It both lives in the Conceptualism archive (there is black-and-white documentation of its appearance in important group shows at Virginia Dwan’s, Paula Cooper’s, and Seth Siegelaub’s galleries) and in the here and now, as one of the only works—or the only work—from that moment that we can experience as new. It forces the viewer to meet it on its own terms—in all its uncompromisingness and difficulty—without the luster of nostalgia or glamour that tends to run rampant through the historicization of Conceptual art. While the passage of time has often challenged canonical Conceptualism, or at worst made it moot, the “Today” series serves as a salubrious reminder that patina was never supposed to be part of Conceptual art’s address.

Lauren O’Neill-Butler