Defined by their temporal parameters, On Kawara's Date Paintings emerge as the ultimate relics of their time. With the dates of their creation as the primary subject, time emerges as the sole content and complete governing principle of their execution. Insisting on the profound truth of the calendar; each of Kawara's date paintings adheres to the self-imposed restriction that it be completed on the exact day delineated; if a painting is not finished by midnight, it is summarily destroyed. For many years, On Kawara always placed a page from the day's newspaper in the plain cardboard box in which each painting is stored. A large black and white photograph of Elvis Presley, who had died that year, dominates the clipping enclosed in the box for December 20th, 1977. In parallel with how Andy Warhol saw Elvis as an iconic motif that embodied the cultural and social forces of his time, December 20th, 1977 signifies how artist and viewer might share in a date that they both had lived. Executed in one of Kawara's most vibrant red hues in opposition to his habitual blues and greys, December 20th, 1977 encapsulates a lived moment in time.
Stemming from the profound feeling of alienation and loss that Kawara experienced as an adolescent on the cusp of adulthood, Kawara's intense focus on the 'here and now' is a direct result of the cataclysmic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki that the young artist reacted to painfully. Later describing the moment as an 'awakening of his consciousness,' this very realisation led Kawara to embrace his part in this new reality - recording his existence with as much all-encompassing neutrality as possible. Informed by an existentialist bent of mind, Kawara's Date Paintings hone in on the present as the only knowable reality in a world filled with doubt. Each painting is a form of meditation for him, taking hours to complete with the utmost care and finest craftsmanship. 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 commemorated in painting, he reduces the twenty-four precious hours of the day to an impartial system. Captured in sanserif font and centered across a rectangular surface, Kawara's Date Paintings normalise 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 two 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.