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On Kawara

Japanese Painter and Conceptual Artist

On Kawara Photo
Movements and Styles: Conceptual Art, Process Art, Post-Minimalism

Born: December 24, 1932 - Kariya, Japan

Died: July 10, 2014 - New York, NY

"I am Still Alive"

On Kawara Signature

Summary of On Kawara

On Kawara is one of the most enigmatic of modern artists. Like his forerunner Marcel Duchamp, Kawara retreated from the art scene, avoiding his own exhibition openings and declining to be interviewed, so that his public persona came to be defined solely through his work. But that work itself seems - at first sight - to offer little more reward to biographers. Instead, it methodically and meticulously documents the trajectory of On's life, without apparent ornament, an art based on ideas rather than aesthetics which sits firmly within the tradition of Conceptual art associated with Joseph Kosuth and Lawrence Weiner. However, the extraordinary duration of Kawara's process-based projects - one of which, his date-painting series Today, lasted almost fifty years, producing almost 3,000 individual works - and the meditative consistency with which he applied himself to his tasks, sets his oeuvre apart, and links his work to his background in Buddhist and Shinto philosophy. By drawing attention to the minutiae of daily existence, Kawara's work focuses our attention on the most basic elements of our experience of the world: our location on the planet, and our passage through time.

Key Ideas

On Kawara's artworks often present the viewer with a simple, linguistic message about the artist's life, such as "I Got Up" or "I Am Still Alive". In the case of the Today series, they simply record the date when the painting was produced. Such works abandon the project of stylistic 'advance' which had sustained modern art since the late-19th century, reverting to a simpler function which had sustained human creativity over a far longer period. Like the cave paintings at Altamira (which Kawara visited and was inspired by in the early 1960s) his work simply documents the fact that the artist was alive: that he occupied a position in time and space. Relaying the bare facts of his existence in this way reflected Kawara's grounding in Buddhism and Existential philosophy, and his struggle to find a way of meaningfully communicating with his audience after the horrors of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which he had lived through as a teenager in Japan.
On Kawara created some of the most long-lasting series of artworks by a single individual, methodically repeating the same activities - with small but significant variations - over years and decades. Occupying a position of semi-obscurity within the art-world for many years, these enormous bodies of work underscore the artist's commitment to documenting his ongoing existence with as little extraneous comment or emotive expression as possible. The simplicity of these projects belies the monumentality of the undertaking, which grants them a unique status in 20th-century art. Work on the Today series, for example, would have occupied the artist for several hours each day, and for years if not decades across the course of his life.
With projects such as I Got Up and I Am Still Alive - which involved mailing postcards and telegrams to friends and benefactors, at irregular intervals, over several years - On Kawara not only abandoned the artisanal techniques that still defined modern art to some extent in the early 1960s, but, more importantly, outsourced the 'completion' of his work to anonymous third parties. In leaving the delivery of his telegrams and postcards, for example - in a sense the final stage of the creative process - to the US postal service and Western Union delivery schedules, On Kawara emphasized the significance of concept over aesthetic form in a far more radical way than modern artists had previously attempted, in line with the most radical tendencies of Conceptual art.
On Kawara Photo

On Kawara was born in 1932, raised in an intellectual family environment informed by aspects of Buddhist, Shinto, and Christian religion. In common with Japanese society as a whole, he was greatly affected by the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which occurred when he was a teenager, and which left him deeply unsettled, questioning the moral values underpinning human society.

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