Executed with a palpable sense of warmth, the glowing red surface of JAN. 12, 1978 is an exceptional example of the colored monochromes that Kawara produced during two intense periods of creativity; the first of which began in 1967, soon after he began working on the series, and continuing in 1977 after a hiatus of ten years during which time he used darker hues almost exclusively. On Kawara’s Date Paintings are quiet meditations on the fundamental nature of time and the personal nature of history. Lucas Zwirner writes that “I see Kawara’s work and personal silence as quite radical…the date paintings are especially interesting here because they are highly universal and extremely private. On the one hand, the dates exist (or existed) for all of us; they comment on the passing of time as a universal phenomenon that the artist makes accessible by calling attention to individual moments” (L. Zwirner “Seeing to Speaking,” On Kawara: Date Painting(s) in New York and 136 Other Cities, Pompton Plains, 2012, p. 136). Executed in just one day, on the date shown, each work adheres to a strict formula in terms of both aesthetic and production methods; all paintings have to be executed in the same precise manner and before midnight on the day in question and any work that fails to live up to these exacting formal and chronographic standards is destroyed.
On the heels of the recent monumental retrospective at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum of Art in New York, the artist’s first major retrospective has allowed for an evolving assessment of his work, in particular the magnitude of the date paintings, the rarity of the color paintings and the significance of his work within the broader art historical canon of the 20th century. Roberta Smith wrote that the exhibition “is an enthralling experience. It makes of the Guggenheim spiral a vortex suffused with consciousness of life’s supreme ruler, in both its quotidian daily unfolding and its enveloping, almost incomprehensible grandeur. It gives you time as local, global and cosmic; as solitude, relationship and motion through space, for the most part in terse, adamantly visual ways…Like a true Conceptualist, Mr. Kawara stuck to the facts and also transcended them, endowing them with a resonant appeal and a sense of form as fine-tuned as any Minimalist sculptor’s. His art helped shape Conceptualism’s love of uninflected information. It fused the movement’s basic duality of image plus text into an instantly legible unit before it actually existed. It also bridged the gap between the modernist monochrome as devotional object and the Duchampian ready-made” (R. Smith, “A Life Captivated by the Wonder of Time: The Guggenheim Shows First On Kawara Retrospective,” The New York Times, 5 February 2015).
The formal simplicity of Kawara’s aesthetics combined with the complexity of their execution produces a multifaceted work, rich in resonance and meaning. 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.
The immaculate surface of JAN. 12, 1978 is the result of a precise and time consuming process by which Kawara slowly builds up and then reduces layers of acrylic paint to produce a flawless surface. Almost in a meditative manner, four coats of paint are carefully applied to the surface of the canvas, each given the correct amount of time to be allowed to dry before slowly being rubbed down in preparation for the subsequent layer. This precise method of execution intensifies the color as the paint is first applied in a skilled fashion with course brush, migrating down to a finer gradation using a very fine brush for the final paint layer. On this surface, outlines of the texts are then 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.
Kawara continues with this highly detailed level of craftsmanship by making, by hand, a box in which each work is stored. These vessels also contain an item, usually in the form of a page or clipping from a newspaper published on the day the work was executed. In the case of JAN. 12, 1978, the box contains a page from the “Positions Vacant” section of The New York Times showing hundreds of vacancies in the financial services industry, the strict typography and geometry of the display advertising neatly mirroring the formal aspects of Kawara’s own composition. At the center of the clipping, a prominent headline almost presciently reads “Are you a millionaire Yet?” as one imagines the throngs of people in search of work as the country faced great economic stagnation during the 1970s and the city of New York went bankrupt. By 1978, however the resurgence in particular of the financial industry and peak of opulence of the 1980s was upon the city: “there was nowhere to go but up!” (K. Baker, “The Greatest Year: 1978,” New York Magazine, 9 January 2011).