On Kawara - Biography and Legacy
Japanese Painter and Conceptual Artist
New York, NY
Biography of On Kawara
Childhood and Education
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.
After graduating from high school in 1951, he relocated to Tokyo, where he spent much of his time in bookstores, studying European philosophy and political and psychoanalytic theory. He quickly acquired a reputation within the Japanese avant-garde art scene, attaching himself to the Avant-Garde Art Association established by Kikuji Yamashita and other painters of a broadly leftist, Social Realist persuasion. Art historian Jung-Ah Woo writes that at this time, Kawara stood for a "new generation of social realism", "determined to confront the reality of Japan's postwar society with a vision unclouded by the older generation's nostalgia for the prewar past." But Kawara's own 1950s work, such as Thinking Man, eschews obvious social commentary for a more elliptical, surrealist style, though still clearly imbued with political content. Just as he was gaining a cult-like following in Tokyo, Kawara became frustrated with the art scene there. He left Japan and set out on the road towards biographical erasure which would eventually result in his refusal to write about his work or life.
In 1959, Kawara moved with his father to Mexico City, where he remained for four years, using it as a base to study modern art - indeed, some writers have commented on the affinity between Kawara's early painting style and that of Mexican contemporaries such as David Alfaro Siqueiros - and to travel around the country. In Mexico, Kawara later recalled, he first became aware of time as an intrinsic, potentially unpredictable backdrop to human experience: in Japan, everything had run on schedule; in Mexico, schedules, timetables, itineraries, were often inaccurate. Because the moment in time which one was living through did not always contain the events and occurrences one had expected, time became a more coherent, tangible presence in the mind. For a short period during 1961-62, Kawara attended the art department of Mexico City University.
In 1962, Kawara moved from Mexico City to New York, where he remained for eight months before travelling to Paris. From Paris he travelled to Toledo in Spain, making a pilgrimage to view the Altamira cava paintings. In 1964, back in Paris, he began a series of drawings that he continued after returning to New York in the autumn of that year. The 1964 Paris - New York series abandons the figurative representation of his 1950s work for combinations of obscure diagrams and symbols, sketches of imagined sculptural environments and installations, and brief, obscure, written messages. Many of these techniques are shared in common with Minimalist painting and Conceptual art; art critic Roberta Smith describes 1964 Paris - New York as "minimalism frazzled, after a hard day at the office."
Kawara settled in New York in 1964 - just as the Conceptual art movement was taking off in the city - and began to create the kinds of works that would characterize his mature period. Some of his early-to-mid 1960s work contained sequential arrangements of shapes suggestive of a language or code system. Others were monochrome paintings featuring single phrases or words ("ART", "CIPHER", "UNTITLED", "GO HOME AND CRY ON YOUR PILLOW"). Although Kawara chose to destroy most of his paintings from this period, these works did convince him of the need to incorporate the written word into his art. The most significant of Kawara's surviving works from this time is Title, whose explicit political content - related to the Vietnam War - foreshadows a consistent feature of his later work: its framing with reference to contemporary social and political events. This was later achieved by packing his Date Paintings in newspaper-lined boxes, and by producing binders full of newspaper clippings for his I Read series.
By the late 1960s, Kawara had completely abandoned public discussion of his practice. This has made documenting his life and work from that point onwards very difficult, with art historians forced to piece together a biography from the documentary records included in - and produced in conjunction with - Kawara's work. As a Conceptual artist, however, Kawara was as concerned with documenting the making of his art as with its final form and appearance, so more of this evidence is furnished than we might expect.
On January 4, 1966, Kawara began the Today series, a project which he would continue for almost fifty years. The so-called Date Paintings that make up the series consist of square canvases of varying sizes, on which the date of the painting is written in sans serif font, with various compositional features altering depending on the date, and on the artist's location. Undertaken with a level of precision and care belied by the simplicity of their final appearance, the Today project establishes the modus operandi that would sustain Kawara's creative practice until his death in 2014; various projects similarly concerned with 'marking time' were established over the next few years. The Today project also spawned a set of associated, ritualistic practices that became almost as creatively significant as the composition of the paintings themselves. Each painting, for example, was stored in a box lined with newspaper from the day of composition, and annual journals were produced documenting various facts about the composition of the Date Paintings.
Because of the isolation in which Kawara worked from the late 1960s onwards, his biography from that point onwards is, to all intents and purposes, identical with the record of his artistic activity from that point. Bearing this in mind, other significant long-term projects include: I Read (1966-95), a set of binders of annotated newspaper clippings, with a page added for each day on which a Date Painting was made; I Got Up (1968-79), a series of picture postcards sent daily, in pairs, to friends, family, and patrons bearing the inscription "I GOT UP AT ... "; I Met (1968-79), a set of lists, documenting by date everyone whom the artist met over an eleven-year period; and I Am Still Alive (1970-2000), a series of telegrams sent at irregular intervals to random recipients, assuring them, in bleakly comic fashion, that the artist was not yet dead.
On Kawara died in 2014. In keeping with the spirit of his work, his obituaries noted that he been alive for 29,771 days.
The Legacy of On Kawara
Kawara's process-based art practice, which made use of materials such as postcards, telegrams, maps, and calendars, opened doors for other Conceptual artists seeking to redefine their practices beyond the canvas, and for the integration of ephemeral media into the fine arts. As regards his relationships with his contemporaries, the list of recipients for Kawara's telegrams and postcards during the I Got Up and I Am Still Alive periods - including Paula Cooper, Lucy Lippard, Sol LeWitt, and John Baldessari - indicates his standing within the Conceptual art scene fostered in 1960s New York.
Kawara's influence also extends into the present. Contemporary Japanese sculptor Tatsuo Miyajima has attributed the use of numbers in his work to the influence of Kawara's Today series. Similarly, the mail artist David Horvitz has cited Kawara's I Got Up and Telegram series as the biggest influence on his practice, which is similarly preoccupied with the passage of time. Horvitz has praised Kawara's work for its "existential and even Zen" qualities. We can also sense the influence of On Kawara in the work of second-generation Conceptual artists working with text such as Jenny Holzer - especially from her Truisms series onwards - and Barbara Kruger, who created work with banner-like headlines.