What's in a day? Everything, in the mind of On Kawara, whose Date Paintings faithfully document the date on which they were made. Insisting on the profound truth of the calendar, he adheres to a self-imposed restriction that each painting be made on the actual date named; if a painting is not finished by midnight, it is summarily destroyed.
Informed by an existentialist point of view, Kawara hones in on the present as the only knowable reality in a world filled with doubt. Each painting is a form of meditation for him, and takes hours to complete with the utmost care and finest craftsmanship. First, four coats of paint are carefully applied for the ground, and each coat is allowed to dry before being rubbed down in preparation for subsequent coats. This process intensifies color, and the application of paint with a coarse brush is followed by the nuance of a very fine brush. On this surface, outlines of the texts are carefully drawn and filled in with several coats of white paint with tapered brushes, a ruler, a set square, and an X-acto blade. Finally, imperfections are eliminated through minute adjustments of 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 had intense reactions to the cataclysmic events of World War II. Raised in an intellectual environment of Shinto, Buddhist, and Christian teachings, he found it impossible to find refuge in religion or in the rationalism thought to underpin human progress, and later described this moment as an "awakening of my consciousness." Life seemed to him a profusion of accidents and value judgments rather than a linear evolution structured by absolute truths. Reality was wholly subjective and therefore withheld the remotest possibility of holistic comprehension.
This very realization allowed 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 in that of the rest of the world) that took place on the particular date of its conception, he reduces time--twenty-four precious hours--into an impartial structure. At the same time, however, his paintings function as a sort of repository of the intangible, inconceivable, and ephemeral nature of time. He alludes to the variation and complexity of what he records-- the external and temporal reality--by storing his paintings in self-made cardboard boxes lined with cuttings culled from local newspapers published on the same date and in the same location as the paintings' execution, with the exception of May 13, 1999 (Today Series No. 14), in Esperanto, where newspaper clippings are not widely available. These cuttings are fragmented not only literally but also in their geographic and editorial specificity, describing events from a particular position. Like time capsules, they convey the immediate context in which the paintings were created but never the entirety of what they mean.
Understanding the limitations of "direct actuality," Kawara never imposes his opinion about the time that he chooses to commemorate. He stays out of the picture, refraining from any comment or interpretation. Unhindered by Kawara's presence, the beholder is allowed to integrate his own experiences into the Date Paintings and invest them with his or her own memories, setting out on an imaginary mental journey in time to a moment that is forever lost. Kawara's work pitches life's brevity against the forward march of time but also illuminates its immeasurable and incomprehensible richness. He invites his viewer to join him on a meditation on life, based on a date far in the past, that is nothing short of profound.
The present work documents a decade, with ten paintings each drawn from a year from the 1990s. Each painting looks deceptively similar, unfolding in banal repetition with calendric regularity. However, on closer inspection one notices the subtle differences that Kawara wove into each unit, as if to suggest the distinct nature of each day while still remaining detached and non-involved. For instance, each painting possesses a slight color--a nuance that is most obvious with the royal blue 26 MAI 1993 and the steel blue MAY 13, 1999, but is also evident in the disparate pitch of saturated grays that form the backdrops of the others. Their unique qualities are echoed in the slight variations of their dimensions. The artist's constant fascination with the counting of time is celebrated in this piece that marks the final decade of the Twentieth century and subsequently the second millennium. Finally, the paintings evince Kawara's signature method of abbreviating the date in the customary manner of the country in which they were made. Thus, for all their impartiality, the paintings are linked to the artist's being--the geographical location of his body, the vagaries of his hand and the subjectivity of his aesthetic decisions. As much as these paintings are visible, ordered structures of time in all its infinite variation, they are equally existential assertions of self.
Seeing the present work is akin to stepping into a time machine, losing oneself in a kind of science-fiction reminiscence. But, the work's deeper resonance--about the immeasurable flow of time and the passing of an entire decade--renders the clichéd imperative to enjoy the present all the more valid.