On Kawara (b. 1933)
May 1, 1987
signed 'On Kawara' (on the reverse)
liquitex on canvas
61 x 89 in. (154.9 x 226.1 cm.)
Painted on May 1, 1987.
Sperone Westwater, New York
William Hokin, Chicago
Anthony Meier Fine Arts, San Francisco
Private collection, Paris
Please note this work is accompanied by three complete newspapers, The New York Times, The New York Post and The Daily News, which are included in the original artist's box.
Please note this work has been requested for inclusion in the forthcoming exhibition On Kawara: 10 Tableaux and 20,834 Pages at the Dallas Museum of Art scheduled for May 18-August 24, 2008.
Every work of art is a relic of its time but none is as aware, accepting and celebratory of it as On Kawara's Date Paintings. With the dates of their creation as their primary subject, these works are defined by their temporal parameters; indeed, it is their sole content and the governing principle of their execution. Insisting on the profound truth of the calendar; each adheres to the self-imposed restriction that it be made on the actual date delineated; if a painting is not finished by midnight, it is summarily destroyed.
Informed by an existentialist bent of mind, Kawara hones in on the present as the only knowable reality in a world filled with doubt. Each actual painting is a form of meditation for him, taking hours to complete with the utmost care and finest craftsmanship. Four coats of paint are carefully applied for the ground and each allowed enough time to dry before being rubbed down in preparation for subsequent coats. Color is intensified to the utmost in this manner, with the application of paint with a coarse brush followed by the nuance of very fine brush. On this surface, outlines of the texts are carefully drawn and filled in with several coats of white paint with the use of tapered brushes, a ruler and set square and an x-acto blade. Finally, imperfections are eliminated through minute adjustments to the outlines and fine-tuning of the overall composition.
Kawara's intense focus on the "here and now" stems from feelings of profound alienation and loss that he experienced as an adolescent on the cusp of adulthood. Thirteen-years-old during the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the young artist reacted painfully to the cataclysmic events of WWII. Raised in an intellectual environment of Shinto, Buddhist and Christian teachings, he found it impossible to find refuge in religion or in the rationalism attributed to human progress; he later described this moment as an "awakening of his consciousness," Life dawned to him as an ubiquity of accidents and value judgments rather than as a linear evolution of events set against absolute truths. Reality was simultaneous and subjective and therefore infinite and without the remotest possibility of holistic comprehension.
It was this very realization that led Kawara to cherish his part in this reality, recording his existence with as much all-encompassing neutrality as possible. Detaching each of his Date Paintings from the multitude of events (in his own life and the rest of the world) that took place on the particular date that he chooses to commemorate, he reduces time - twenty-four precious hours - to an impartial system. Captured in sanserif font and centered across rectangular formats that range in size from 8 x 10 inches to 61 x 89 inches, Kawara's Date Paintings normalize time; the only variable that Kawara allows into this system is the language of the text, which is based on the country of each painting's conception. On acrylic-coated canvases that project 2-inches off the wall, the Date Paintings occupy space like objects and are indeed somewhat akin to repositories of an otherwise intangible, inconceivable and ephemeral substance: time.
Of course, Kawara alludes to the multifarious nature and complexity of what he records - the external reality of each day - by storing his paintings in self-made cardboard boxes lined with cuttings culled from local newspapers from the same date and locale of their execution. These cuttings are necessarily fragmented not only in the literal sense of being cut from a larger whole, but also in their geographic specificity, the events that they describe and the opinion from which they describe them. They convey some context to the paintings but can never encompass the entirety of what the paintings seek to accomplish. After all, the Date Paintings are not specific histories but universal ones that essentially aspire to be time capsules.
The two works in this sale materialize the essence of Kawara's project but to distinctly different ends. At 61 x 89 inches, the largest size that the artist employs for his Date Paintings, May 1, 1987 stops time in its tracks; emblazoned in monumental scale, May 1, 1987 becomes an iconic date that the forces contemplation on the part of the viewer. As Kawara limits his presence to a great extent, the beholder is encouraged to integrate his own experiences into the painting and invest it with his own memories of the particular date delineated. Setting out on a mental journey through time to a moment that is forever lost, he is brought to an understanding of life's fleeting brevity and immeasurable beauty in a meditation that is nothing short of profound.
Five Decades imparts a similar sense of gravitas; comprised of five paintings, each documenting a date from the sixties, seventies, eighties, nineties and the new millennium, this work ruminates on distinct moments in the past. However, rather than freezing time to a single day, Five Decades evinces its unending and unstoppable passage. Seeming to unfold with the calendar-like regularity of days, months and years, each of the 10½ x 13 inch canvases features a deceptively similar formal aesthetic. However, on closer inspection, the subtle differences that Kawara wove into each unit - as if to suggest the distinct nature of every day - become acutely apparent. For instance, each painting is determined by the language of the place in which it was created; thus, October 25, 1971, 17 July 1983March 23, 1998 and Mar. 12, 2000 feature English text on account of their creation in New York (a fact that is corroborated by the pages of the New York Times that line their boxes), while 9 ABR 68 features Spanish text on account of its creation in Mexico City (a fact that is corroborated by the pages of the Ultimas Noticias that lines its box). Even those created in New York evince distinct formatting standards and abbreviations; hence October 25, 1971 and March 23, 1998 follow the same format while 17 July 1983 and Mar. 12, 2000 1998 follow different ones. Finally, each painting possesses a slightly nuanced color that is a unique pitch of saturated gray. Thus, for as much as these paintings are visible, ordered structures of time, they are individualized in subtle ways that suggest the uniqueness and singularity of every moment.
Offering a kind of "back to the past" reminiscence, May 1, 1987 and Five Decades are akin to stepping into time machines. The work's deeper resonance-- the immeasurable flow of time-- makes the clichéd imperative to enjoy the present entirely valid.
After all, what's in a day?
New York, Sperone Westwater, On Kawara, January 1988.
Malmö, Rooseum, What is Contemporary Art?, June-July 1989, p. 81, no. 40 (illustrated).