For over four decades, On Kawara has created paintings, drawings, books, and recordings that examine chronological time and its function as a measure of human existence. The artist began making his now signature date paintings in 1966 in New York City, and continues to make them in different parts of the world. Following the same basic procedure and format, each of these works is carefully executed by hand with the date documented in the language and grammatical conventions of the country in which it is made (Esperanto is used when the first language of a given country does not use the Roman alphabet). The artist has created a version of the sans serif typeface, which he uses to meticulously paint the letters and numbers in white on a monochrome surface. With the dates of their creation as their primary subject, On Kawara's Date Paintings are defined by their temporal parameters; indeed, it is their sole content and the governing principle of their execution. Insisting on the profound truth of the calendar; each adheres to the self-imposed restriction that it be made on the actual date delineated; if a painting is not finished by midnight, it is summarily destroyed.
Informed by an existentialist bent of mind, Kawara hones in on the present as the only knowable reality in a world filled with doubt. Each actual painting is a form of meditation for him, taking hours to complete with the utmost care and finest craftsmanship. Four coats of paint are carefully applied for the ground and each allowed enough time to dry before being rubbed down in preparation for subsequent coats. Color is intensified to the utmost in this manner, with the application of paint with a coarse brush followed by the nuance of very fine brush. On this surface, outlines of the texts are 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. Finally, imperfections are eliminated through minute adjustments to 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 reacted painfully to the cataclysmic events of WWII. Raised in an intellectual environment of Shinto, Buddhist and Christian teachings, he found it impossible to find refuge in religion or in the rationalism attributed to human progress; he later described this moment as an "awakening of his consciousness." Life dawned to him as an ubiquity of accidents and value judgments rather than as a linear evolution of events set against absolute truths. Reality was simultaneous and subjective and therefore infinite and without the remotest possibility of holistic comprehension.
It was this very realization that led 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 the rest of the world) that took place on the particular date that he chooses to commemorate, he reduces time--twenty-four precious hours--to an impartial system. Captured in sanserif font and centered across a rectangular format, Kawara's Date Paintings normalize 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 2-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.
Of course, Kawara alludes to the multifarious nature and complexity of what he records--the external reality of each day--by storing his paintings in self-made cardboard boxes lined with cuttings culled from local newspapers from the same date and locale of their execution. These cuttings are necessarily fragmented not only in the literal sense of being cut from a larger whole, but also in their geographic specificity, the events that they describe and the opinion from which they describe them. They convey some context to the paintings but can never encompass the entirety of what the paintings seek to accomplish. After all, the Date Paintings are not specific histories but universal ones that essentially aspire to be time capsules.
At 61 x 89 inches, the largest size that the artist employs for his Date Paintings, May 1, 1987 stops time in its tracks; emblazoned in monumental scale, May 1, 1987 becomes an iconic date that the forces contemplation on the part of the viewer. 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.