‘Kawara is a master of calligraphy, a man of belief and, of course, one of the great artists of our time’
(C. Scheidemann, quoted in J. Watkins, R. Denizot et al, On Kawara, London 2002, p. 30).
With its temporal delineation meticulously inscribed upon a black canvas, May 27, 1985 stems from On Kawara’s celebrated series of Date Paintings. Since its inception in 1965, this deeply existential sequence of works has come to represent the single most important strand of Kawara’s conceptual practice. Governed by the impeachable passage of time, these works are defined by the day upon which they were created. Insisting on the profound truth of the calendar, each of Kawara’s Date Paintings adheres to the artist’s self-imposed restriction that the work must be completed before midnight on the day of its inception. The work documents not only the date of its making but also, in an accompanying hand-crafted box, a selection of cuttings pulled from local newspapers. The present work includes the sports and weather page of The New York Times, with features on the Boston Celtics, the Lakers, the Cosmos and the Coca-Cola World 600 stock-car race. Aspiring to the condition of a time capsule, the Date Paintings are simultaneously personal and universal in their narratives, capturing a lived moment within the ever-expanding, ever-unravelling tapestry of human existence.
For Kawara, the Date Paintings represent a form of meditation. His desire to situate his art in the ‘here and now’, conceiving his paintings one day at a time, stems from the intense feelings of alienation and loss he experienced as an adolescent. The voices of existentialist philosophers – most significantly Jean-Paul Sartre – rang loudly in his ears during the post-War period, and resonated with thoughts and experiences dating back to his schooldays. Born in Japan in 1932, just a few years before the outbreak of the Second World War, Kawara was only 13 when the atomic bomb fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. As Jonathan Watkins has written, ‘His reaction was profound, transforming him from a diligent, successful student into an uncooperative one who would only exclaim “I don’t understand” when required to contribute to lessons. Kawara remembers that at this time he “started to doubt everything” to the extent that he isolated himself within his immediate family’ (J. Watkins, ‘Where “I Don’t Know” Is the Right Answer’, in J. Watkins, R. Denizot et al, On Kawara, London 2002, p. 48). Unable to find solace in familial or intellectual outlets, Kawara spent much of his youth attempting, in vain, to comprehend the cataclysmic events of 1945. It was, he later recalled, the ‘awakening of consciousness’ (O. Kawara, quoted in J. Watkins, ‘Where “I Don’t Know” Is the Right Answer’, in J. Watkins, R. Denizot et al, On Kawara, London 2002, p. 48). As time progressed, Kawara began to come to terms with this unstable new reality, and started to channel his doubt into painting, systematically recording his existence with as much all-encompassing neutrality as possible. The Date Paintings are concrete repositories of an otherwise intangible, inconceivable and ephemeral substance: time, the single unifying constant within a painfully fractured world.
The immaculate surface of May 27, 1985 is the result of a precise, near-calligraphic process, in which Kawara slowly builds up and then reduces layers of acrylic paint to produce a flawless finish. With an almost ritual solemnity, four coats of paint are carefully applied to the surface of the canvas, each permitted to dry before slowly being rubbed down in preparation for the subsequent layer. Initially applied with a coarse brush, migrating down to a finer gradation of hairs with each new coat, Kawara’s painstaking treatment of paint produces a right intensification of colour – an impenetrable void upon which his uniform sans-serif text is indelibly inscribed. Using a ruler, set-square and an X-Acto blade, Kawara draws the outline of each character before adding several coats of white paint with a tapered brush. Aside from the date itself, the only variable permitted within this process is language, which is adapted according to the city in which the work was made. Each completed Date Painting is registered in a journal, using a swatch of the paint mixture applied to a small rectangle and glued to a chart. Unwaveringly systematic, Kawara reduces the twenty-four hours of each day to an impartial framework, in which technique is fundamentally at the mercy of the work’s rigid temporal parameters. Viewed collectively, the Date Paintings ultimately stand as existential relics, pristine records of time laid down by a universal scribe. As Christian Scheidemann has asserted, ‘Kawara is a master of calligraphy, a man of belief and, of course, one of the great artists of our time’ (C. Scheidemann, quoted in J. Watkins, R. Denizot et al, On Kawara, London 2002, p. 30).