ON KAWARA (1932-2014)
ON KAWARA (1932-2014)
ON KAWARA (1932-2014)
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ON KAWARA (1932-2014)
4 More
The Collection of Thomas and Doris Ammann
ON KAWARA (1932-2014)

MAY 29, 1972, from Today, 1966–2013

ON KAWARA (1932-2014)
MAY 29, 1972, from Today, 1966–2013
signed 'On Kawara' (on the reverse)
acrylic on canvas with newspaper clipping, in artist's box
18 x 24 in. (45.5 x 60.9 cm.)
Executed in 1972.
Thomas Ammann Fine Art AG, Zurich
Acquired from the above by the present owner
On Kawara, continuity/discontinuity, 1963-1979, exh. cat., Stockholm, 1980, p. 65 (installation view illustrated).
A. Choon and T. Simoens, eds., On Kawara: Date Painting(s) in New York and 136 Other Cities, Antwerp, 2012, p. 19.
Brussels, Palais des Beaux-Arts, Carl Andre / Marcel Broodthaers / Daniel Buren / Victor Burgin / Gilbert & George / On Kawara / Richard Long / Gerhard Richter, January-February 1974.
Zurich, Thomas Ammann Fine Art AG, The Power of Painting, November 2014-January 2015.

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Michael Baptist
Michael Baptist Associate Vice President, Specialist, Co-Head of Day Sale

Lot Essay

Reaching across time and space with a profound sense of materiality, On Kawara’s Today paintings are essays on a life spent in the quiet contemplation of everyday existence. Although they are specific to a particular day, they are also universal, cosmic and timeless. The present work, MAY 29, 1972, from Today, 1966-2013, is an early large-scale example from this pivotal series. It was executed in lower Manhattan on Monday, May 29, 1972 – Memorial Day – while U.S. President Richard Nixon visited Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev in Moscow for a global peace summit. On that day, while the world was watching events in Russia, On Kawara spent his time, as he did many days, painting.

In MAY 29, 1972, that day’s date is proclaimed in a series of crisp, white lettering and centered on a dark expansive black background. In keeping with his technique, Kawara writes the date in the chosen language of the city in which he painted it. While some Today paintings abbreviated longer months such as “JAN.” “SEP.” or “NOV.,” in the present work, Kawara must have enjoyed the tidy, wholeness of three-letter word for “MAY” and the palindromic pairs of “2s” and “9s” in May 29, 1972. Although he adopted a standard, sans-serif font, close examination reveals slight, almost miniscule, deviations in the execution of the numbers and letters. This is due to the fact that Kawara never used stencils, and instead worked free-hand to delineate each element of that day’s date. He relied only upon a ruler or T-square to aid him in his maintain his graphic discipline; the result is that, although the Today paintings are emptied out of imagery, color or traditional ‘meaning,’ they are deeply personal and almost tender paintings—the result of countless delicate interactions of the hand, body and brush with the surface of the canvas.

On Kawara was born on December 24, 1932, in Kariya, Japan, just outside of the central city of Nagoya. He was barely a teenager when atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. He felt the pacifist teachings of his youth—including those of the Shinto, Buddhist and Christian traditions—were at odds with the trauma and horror of what he witnessed during the war, and would later describe this moment as an “awakening” of his consciousness. After spending time in Mexico City and Paris in the early 1960s, On Kawara settled in New York in 1965. It was there that he painted his first Today painting on January 4, 1966. In doing so, Kawara joined with a small group of artists that were beginning to incorporate ostensibly simple words or phrases in their art. Along with artists like John Baldessari, Lawrence Weiner and Joseph Kosuth, Kawara was part of a burgeoning new movement that would later be called Conceptual art. In the mid-1960s, these artists adopted a limited palette and often used a plain “all-caps” sans-serif font that isolated single words or phrases against a plain background. In this way, Conceptual artists appropriated language as a “readymade” much in the way that Marcel Duchamp had first pioneered its usage in the early twentieth-century.

With their sleek, authoritative surface and declarative text, the Today paintings are minimalist in their execution and conceptual in their intellectual rigor. Yet, each canvas is also a painstakingly crafted object, and the result of period of extended labors that often lasted an entire day. Over the course of his lifetime, Kawara painted Today paintings in more than 112 cities around the world. He didn’t always make one painting a day; he imposed limits upon himself, and if a painting wasn’t completed to his satisfaction by midnight, he destroyed it. In this way, each Today painting is a powerful celebration of its very own existence.

At this point in his career, Kawara kept a journal in which he wrote down details of each Today painting, noting the color, size, date, and subtitle. For May 29, 1972, Kawara wrote: "U.S. President Nixon and the Soviet Communist party leader, Leonid I. Brezhnev at the Kremlin ceremony, Moscow,” a phrase reflecting events reported in that morning’s newspaper which Kawara then tucked into a handmade box that accompanies the painting. Kawara’s chosen subtitle is a powerful reminder of the extraordinary world events that transpired while the artist humbly went about his task. In this way, each Today painting is a lingering relic of history but also connects us to the quiet poetry of daily life.

In addition to painting MAY 29, 1972, Kawara also sent two postcards to friends or associates stamped with the phrase "I GOT UP AT 8.19A.M. Kawara spent 17 days staying at German art curator Kasper König’s apartment at 65 East Broadway in Lower Manhattan producing Today paintings. Later, he would travel to the Moderna Museet in Stockholm, to be its artist-in-residence. By this point, Kawara had developed an international following, and would exhibit his Today paintings at Documenta 5 in Kassel, Germany in the summer of 1972, in addition to them being included in gallery exhibitions around the world, including Paris, Milan, London, Brussels, Düsseldorf, and Bern.

When the Today paintings were exhibited at the artist’s retrospective organized by the Solomon R. Guggenheim’s museum in New York in 2015, just months after the artist’s death, they offered an opportunity to surmise the depth and breadth of On Kawara’s epic undertaking. Spiraling up the museum’s ramp leading up to the top floor, the Today paintings were breathtaking in ways that were often at odds with each other; they are both humble and grand; timeless yet specific; intimate and personal yet connected to a larger, more cosmic and global world. To this day, there is something about the Today paintings that goes beyond the mere fact of their materials; perhaps this is related to the idea taken from the Shinto religion that inanimate objects can have spirits (called kami) and that as well as being beautiful objects, they can possess an innate and indestructible soul.

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