In Focus

On Kawara, "Today" Series

After a period of surrealist figurative painting in his native Japan in the 1950s, On Kawara shifted his focus to the recording of time in paintings that bear the date on which they are created. The alphanumeric structure of month, number, and year (or number, month, and year, depending on where you are) is as powerful as it is ubiquitous, and no amount of exposition could equal a date's functional and symbolic significance. Each one of us knows what dates are, what they mean, and what they can bring to mind; and all of us, irrevocably, carry certain dates in our heads at all times, whether consciously or not.

Kawara's art at first seems to be about dates and dates alone (it is not). The artist's 'Date Paintings,' as they have come to be called as a group, are his best-known works. They are part of the Today series (1966-2013). Every 'Date Painting' is made on the day it depicts; if it was not finished before the turn of the next day, it was destroyed. Though the paintings may appear industrially produced, they are not: Kawara carefully painted the solid color background and each letter and number in a nondescript sans-serif typeface. The order of information and language depend on where the artist was at the time. If he was in Germany, for example, he used the German name (often abbreviated for space considerations) for the month and used the European date format (day, month, year). Kawara steadily produced a major life's work that goes to the very heart of human existence, yet by means which are entirely everyday and therefore nearly universal in their ability to communicate how it is we register and experience time.

Kawara did not create a 'Date Painting' every day, but did so on many days. On certain days he painted more than one. Kawara used canvases of various sizes, from small to very large, and he employed a select group of powerfully resonant colors, from bright red to bright blue to more intense grays and blacks. Kawara constructed cardboard boxes for each of the Date Paintings and, since late 1966, lined these boxes with parts of the newspapers of the city in which he was painting, thus making each painting a miniature time capsule of the very moment and location it came to life. The boxes can be displayed with the paintings, but most often they are not.

As is true of many of the major figures throughout the history of art, On Kawara's art is both representative of its time and diverges from it. Kawara arrived in New York from Mexico (before that, Japan) in the early 1960s, a time when the existential heroics of American Abstract Expressionism were beginning to be supplanted by the austere rigors of Minimalism and the sardonic exuberance of Pop.

Eliminating the overt figurative vocabulary he had devised in postwar 1950s Japan in response to that country's severe psychological and physical crises, Kawara began to create in the mid-1960s an art that used purposely nonexpressive means. Subjectively, the traditional domain of art based on feeling, was not of interest to many of the artists at the time, who turned to language, action, process, and documentation as both form and subject. The term that has come to be used to name such art and artists is conceptual, and, like Cubism, Surrealism, or indeed Minimalism and Pop, such a term can be both useful and not in placing an artist's work within its historical context.

A necessary shorthand definition of conceptual art is that it did away with the finished aesthetic object; and proposed the artist's idea and thought were the only necessary elements in making and perceiving a work of art. The term art itself, with its weight of history and cultural expectations, became suspect. Traditional genres such as painting and sculpture with their formal considerations of scale, color, and shape were not only of no concern, they were seen as backward; painting was dead (so it was said). Subjective response as evinced by artists such as Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko, and the mythologies surrounding them, came under intense interrogation.

As part of a general attempt in the 1960s at overthrowing inherent social, aesthetic, political structures, values, and beliefs, artists began to question, among other things, art's cultlike hero worship of the individual artist; the dominance of a ruthlessly efficient market in art as luxury goods, which willingly embraced a larger consumer voraciousness; and the way in which museums seemed to enshrine art rather than inquire into its nature and purpose. How artists looked at the world and how they behaved in reaction to that same world became paramount to conceptual art's ethos. Such work was not, however, about the inner life of the artist. Instead, the artist was instigator of a chain of events that brought to light systems and beliefs—linguistic, social, political, and aesthetic—all that often went unexamined.

Much conceptual art was thus the recording of various actions and observations made about the world at that moment; rather than painstakingly creating discreet single objects for removed contemplation, artists sought, through nontraditional means that more often resembled reportage than anything traditionally considered art, to raise awareness of what it truly meant to be in the world and how that world really worked.

On Kawara's art can at first be seen to be adhering to this (again, abbreviated) definition of conceptual art. Beginning in 1965 he started the work that is now considered part of the wider conceptual art movement. In recording his experience, indeed his very existence, through numbers and language within a format of nearly industrial anonymity; in adhering to a set of actions performed with absolute regimented regularity; in marking the abstract procession of the march of time, year in and year out, in a resolutely thorough but nonrevelatory way, his art, like much conceptual art, avoids subjectivity in registering actions and process.

Yet Kawara's art has always diverged from such strict definitions. While ostensibly nonrevelatory, Kawara has provided a rather intimate view into his daily life by letting us know where he has gone, whom he has met, and what was of interest in world events. It is hard to think of another artist whose work allows one to know such and so many personal details with such relentless consistency. While Kawara's self—his personality, his human qualities, that which we think we need to have in mind before we can say we "know" someone—is not the subject of his art, his physical and intellectual activities certainly are. Unlike the one-off, scripted, documented event that comprised many a conceptual work of art, Kawara's activities were ongoing, placing his practice literally years beyond one of conceptual art's central tenets of finite means and ends.

Furthermore Kawara's series of works are recordings of activities that are his alone, making his entire body of work—all of his series—since January 4, 1966 (the date of the first Date Painting) a self-portrait. The self that is depicted is one who travels a great deal, one who is disciplined in sustaining the various ongoing forms of registering experience, and one who has through accepted objective measures brought to the center of his art huge themes of (among others) experience, being, and consciousness. Such ideas that touch on the metaphysical were not only of no concern to most conceptual artists, they were rejected at a time when all systems of belief were coming under interrogative fire.

Broadly speaking, Kawara's art deals with the registering of time and by implication the procession of lived experience, portraying his existence through various media. These included postcards, telegrams, paintings such as these, and diaristic recordings with typewriter on paper of whom he had met, where he had gone, and what he had read on a particular day. In this way, Kawara can be seen not only as a conceptual artist, one whose paramount concern is that of the expression of an idea through art, but also as a performance artist whose very life becomes the subject and object of his artistic practice. In this manner, time itself becomes the very matter and effect of the artist's project.

Adapted from

  • Charles Wylie, "Of Today" in On Kawara: 10 Tableaux and 16,952 Pages (Dallas: Dallas Musem of Art; New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008), 32-37.
  • Charles Wylie, DMA unpublished material, 2007.