Japanese Painter and Conceptual Artist
New York, NY
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.
- 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.
Biography of On Kawara
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.
Important Art by On Kawara
Thinking Man is one of On Kawara's earliest exhibited works. Featuring a starved, sick, or mutilated male figure in a claustrophobic room, this is a deeply uncomfortable image to engage with. The figure's flesh seems to be twisting around its limbs, while red pockmarks or score-shapes - suggestive of torture or sickness - cover the body. The stillness of the figure, and the prison-like confinement of the space in which he is set, enhance the impression of discomfort and fear.
This piece was exhibited in Tokyo to wide critical acclaim. It resonated with emotions in Japan at the time, as the country was still coming to terms with the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the horibble loss of life, and the blow to national pride. Many of Kawara's contemporaries depicted death and destruction in their work, though often in more directly representational, polemical works. In series like The Bathroom (1953-54), a set of paintings showing dismembered and bleeding bodies against a porcelain-tiled backdrop - Kawara showed that he could match Tokyo's Social Realist painters for cathartic gore. But while his "thinking man" clearly serves as a symbol for the mood of the country, and suggests the physical effects of nuclear fallout, the piece lacks the explicit political content of, say, Maruki Iri and Maruki Toshi's Hiroshima Panels (1950-82). The use of a distressed figure as a metaphor for the destruction of a country also sets Kawara's work alongside that of European post-war artists such as Alberto Giacometti, Francis Bacon, and Jean Dubuffet, while the near-caricature of a thinking stance is a possible nod to the existential condition as identified by contemporary French writers such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus.
Though an early work, and somewhat untypical of the artist, Thinking Man speaks to Kawara's existential concerns. It reflects a sense of the impossibility of meaningfully communicating the human condition which would be expressed in a different way through works of his mature, Conceptual period, such as the Today series.
One of few surviving works from a group of word and phrase-based paintings made in New York in 1964-65, Title consists of three panels whose bold red backgrounds frame the phrases "One Thing", "1965", and "Viet-nam".
Title was produced at a time when the U.S. military was subjecting North Vietnam to a massive bombing campaign. Kawara's early work - indeed, his early life - had been profoundly affected by the WWII bombings, and it is likely that the stark topical content of this piece, and even the boldness of the color, indicate a depth of emotional response which is belied by the overall minimalism of the work.
This is a highly significant piece in the evolution of Kawara's practice, one of his earliest works to incorporate a written message relaying the circumstances surrounding the piece's composition. This technique would become something of a signature style in the monumental processual projects of the proceeding decades. Title is also an important early example of Conceptual art, a movement taking off in New York in the mid-1960s. Works from the same period, such as Joseph Kosuth's One and Three Chairs (1965), are also concerned with bringing the written word into the visual field of the painting, and with using the interplay between text and visual form to produce subtle commentaries on the relationship between the finished artwork and the process of its creation.
December 17, 1979 is one of nearly 3,000 works produced over a span of almost fifty years as part of Kawara's Today series. The Date Paintings which make up the series consist of the date of composition, hand-painted in sans-serif font, against a monochrome background. These backgrounds are mostly dark grey, though paintings were also produced in shades of red and blue, and the tonal variation between different paintings is surprisingly wide. They ranged in size from 8 x 10 inches to 61 x 89 inches, although Kawara generally used the same eight increments of scale.
The Date Paintings are partly documents of a repetitive, meditative composition process which took on something of the quality of a ritual or liturgy, marking the passage of time, and of the artist's life. Kawara set two main formal parameters when producing the paintings: first, each date was formatted using the writing customs of the country in which it was composed, and written in the relevant language; second, each painting had to be completed on the day in question. If Kawara did not finish a painting by midnight, it was destroyed. A later work, the 100 Years Calendar (1984), used a color coding system to mark each day of Kawara's life when a painting was successfully produced. The craftsmanship involved in producing the Date Paintings was remarkable: each ground-wash was created using four separate coats of paint. The outlines of the letters and numbers were then hand-written, carefully spaced out to make sure the date sat perfectly in the center of the canvas, and filled in with several coats of white paint, using tapered brushes, a ruler, and a set square. The Today series is thus partly a monument to an investment of time, care, and labor which is almost invisible in the finished works, whose appeal to the viewer is immediate, not to say ephemeral.
Once the hidden craftsmanship of the pieces becomes evident, the Date Paintings suggest a series of engaging analogies between the present moment and the past which informs it. Because the date of each painting has necessarily passed by the time of its viewing, the pieces also suggest the ephemerality of the present moment: its instant passage into the past. In these ways, the Today series is classic Conceptual art, its idea-content, often informed by philosophy, more significant than its aesthetic content. At the same time, there remains visual variation and interest in the Date Paintings; the regularity of the paintings partly provides a backdrop against which elementary changes in color, size, wording, and so on, assume an exaggerated significance to the viewer.
Today is one of the longest-lasting series of works to be produced by an individual artist, and quite possibly one of the most methodically continuous activities ever undertaken by a human being. It is also broadly agreed to be one of the most important works of Conceptual art. As regards the development of Kawara's career, Today marked a definitive shift from figurative art to the conceptual, process-based projects, concerned with temporal and spatial location, which would characterize his most valuable contributions to modern art.