Although the most famous chess game known to aficionados of 20th-century art might be the one of a 76-year-old Marcel Duchamp facing off against nude Hollywood bombshell Eve Babitz, for Ikon Gallery director Jonathan Watkins another match holds even greater renown. Like Duchamp, who threatened to give up his art practice in favour of a mastery of chess, fellow conceptual artist On Kawara, with whom Watkins worked on many exhibitions and authored the artist’s pre-eminent monograph, was a serious adherent of the game. ‘Because of the book and many exhibitions, I often stayed with him and we played,’ says Watkins. ‘I actually beat him once, which, believe me, was no mean feat.’
Left: On Kawara, APR 1, 1969. From I Got Up, 1968–79. Stamped ink on postcard. 6 x 9 inches (15.2 x 23 cm). MTM Collection, Japan. Right: On Kawara, JUN 10, 1975. From I Got Up, 1968–79. Stamped ink on postcard, 3 1/2 x 5 1/2 inches (8.9 x 4 cm). Collection of Keiji and Sawako Usami.
Kawara, whose life’s oeuvre is showcased in On Kawara — Silence, opening at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York on February 6, is celebrated for a conceptual rigour that begot his most famous series, Today or the daily paintings: every day for 48 years, the artist created an acrylic-on-canvas featuring that day’s date in white block letters on a solid ground. Guggenheim curator Jeffrey Weiss, who organised the show with the artist until his unexpected death last June, views Kawara’s interest in chess as a ‘model for the work because it’s an exercise in finding the multiple possibilities within a restricted field of play,’ he says. ‘That’s the proposition of minimalism,’ follows Watkins.
Although the exhibition includes an exhaustive example of Kawara’s many other series documenting his quotidian antics (I Met details new acquaintances; I Read is a collection of news clippings), his penchant for travel (I Went manifests maps), and a clever combination of the two (I Got Up is composed of postcards sent to friends stamped with the time of day the artist awoke over an 11-year period), Weiss is hesitant to use the word retrospective when referring to the show.‘Typically when every category of work made by one artist is presented in a single show, change can be seen,’ says Weiss. ‘But Kawara’s work ‘never really changed, which was a deliberate choice.’
On Kawara, I Went 1968–79. Clothbound loose-leaf binders with plastic sleeves and inserted printed matter. Twenty-four volumes. 11 1/2 x 11 13/4 x 3 in. (29.2 x 29.8 x 7.6 cm.). Sleeve size: 11 1/16 x 8 5/8 in. (28.1 x 21.9 cm). Inserts: Ink on photocopy, 11 x 8 inches (27.9 x 20.3 cm) each. Collection of the artist.
Despite the restraint for which Kawara became known, his early years as an artist in post-war Tokyo yielded bleak representative work. Despite the notoriety these procured for him on a local level, he chose to follow his engineer father to Mexico City where, in adapting to the foreign culture, he developed a wanderlust that would influence a lifetime of art-making considered by many to be among the most profound conceptual projects ever undertaken. After three years in Mexico, he travelled to New York in 1962, followed by Paris and Spain. The artist then returned to New York where he eventually settled, punctuated by annual pilgrimages to Japan, regular trips to France, and a host of other destinations in between. The date paintings from at least 130 of those locations were all rendered in the language of the country in which they were made.
On Kawara, Paris–New York Drawing no. 144, 1964. Graphite and coloured pencil on paper, perforated top edge. 4 9/16 x 18 1/16 in. (37 x 46 cm). Collection of the artist. Photo: Courtesy David Zwirner, New York/London.
Kawara’s work, says Jeffrey Weiss, ‘never really changed, which was a deliberate choice’
During his time in Spain, the artist visited the caves of Altamira, where he encountered the Paleolithic-era drawings for which the site is known. The visit affected a turning point in the artist’s practice. To Kawara, ‘the caves represented the emergence of art-making and consciousness in human evolution,’ says Weiss. The evidence of such heightened awareness from nearly 40,000 years in the past spurred the artist to fix his attention on the movement and interactions of time and space, and the mindfulness required to achieve the sense of an eternal present. He made the first date painting on January 4, 1966.
From a purely conceptual perspective, the artist’s project — documenting the date, the news, trivial human exertions — initially appears to be devoid of emotion. But likely every date has an importance to someone, and many of Kawara’s collectors acquire pieces from the Today series out of personal sentimentality. While Weiss concedes, ‘nostalgia is anathema to the work’, the famously reclusive Kawara, who refused to make statements about his art to prevent an absolute reading of its meaning, encouraged the interpretation of others. Despite the gravity of its profundity, the levity of chance is also at play.
On Kawara, Telegram to Sol LeWitt, February 5, 1970. From I Am Still Alive, 1970–2000. Telegram. 5 3/4 x 8 in. (14.6 x 20.3 cm). LeWitt Collection. Chester, Connecticut.
A 2002 exhibition at Ikon, Consciousness. Meditation. Watcher on the Hills, toured 12 different cities in four years. ‘When I told him I had the opportunity to tour the show,’ says Watkins, ‘he told me I could only do it if it went around the world in a clockwise direction.’ Both Watkins and Kawara authorised the various directors and curators to interpret the show as best suited their venues. ‘After its last stop in Lima, Peru, we brought the show back to Ikon and called it Eternal Return,’ says Watkins. ‘Seeing a portion of the show installed exactly as it had been four years earlier created the weirdest sensation. It was a very special experience.’
At the Guggenheim, the several documenting series will be accompanied by drawings rendered in 1964 that depict numerous unrealised ideas as well as the only two remaining paintings that predate the Today series. (Kawara was notorious for destroying much of his work that predates 1966.) The performative aspect of the artist’s oeuvre will be represented by a live oration of dates read from a ledger holding dates going both forward and back through time for a million years. In some passages of the show single bodies of work appear alone; in others the different examples interact. ‘I’m trying to not be too literal,’ says Weiss. ‘It’s not a running time line despite those elements that are in the show.’
The curator does, however, admit to the connection between the spiral of the museum’s physical space and the artist’s linearity. ‘The building lends itself well to the work and the way I wanted to portray it,’ he says. ‘You can look across the atrium to see other works, allowing viewers to grasp the nature of the practice as a whole composed of multiple interrelated parts.’ Or as Watkins puts it, ‘It will be a continuous journey.’
Left: On Kawara, MAY 20, 1981. “Wednesday.” New York. From Today, 1966–2013. Acrylic on canvas. 18 x 24 in. (45.7 x 61 cm). Pictured with artist-made cardboard storage boxes. 24 5/8 x 18 5/8 x 2 in. (62.5 x 47.3 x 5 cm). Private collection. Photo: Courtesy David Zwirner, New York/London.
Right: On Kawara, DEC. 29, 1977. “Thursday.” New York. From Today, 1966–2013. Acrylic on canvas. 8 x 10 in. (20.3 x 25.4 cm). Pictured with artist-made cardboard storage boxes, 10 1/2 x 10 3/4 x 2 inches (26.8 x 27.2 x 5 cm). Private collection. Photo: Courtesy David Zwirner, New York/London.