On On Kawara

There's a man who lives in Soho who usually gets up out of bed everyday and produces at least one painting in a series that he has worked on since 1966. He applies five layers of liquitex paint, sanding each one to a smooth finish when it dries. These are monochromatic images of a simple line of text: the date. Each of these graphic paintings is unique in other less subtle ways as the colors are created afresh everyday. The backdrop of the date may shift subtly towards warm hues, or towards cool hues. The specific date itself is handpainted without stencil though precisely in either futura, or gil sans. The man is celebrated conceptual artist On Kawara.

Accompanying the paintings are sometimes newspaper clippings, or recordings. They are also given subtitles which are sometimes personal (I saw so-and-so today) or impersonal records of daily events. There are gaps in the series. If the artist doesn't finish the painting by midnight on the day of its date the canvas is destroyed.

Taking in the series the Today Series one might expect to be confronted with thoughts of cool voyeurism, or history. However, the impact of this process driven work is far more. Today demonstrates the emptiness of tables. The dates have subjective meaning or meaninglessness based on the viewers approach. Most of us cannot without some effort remember what happened on specific dates of our lives. Memory instructs us that some things we hope to remember we soon forget, and other mundane things stay with us forever apparently without regard to significance or practicality.

Consider then the process of creating the paintings themselves. The artist spend hours building a thing that signifies nothing though its format, white text on a matte background, suggests permanence and gravity. The font featured on many pieces, Futura, was created by the Bauhaus and used regularly by Stanley Kubrick. The appearance instead gives way to a weightless sign without a thing signified. The power of text and record becomes a vulnerable gesture.

On the other hand, the paintings are also signposts of accomplishment and discipline. They can also be garnished with scraps of the past, those resilient scraps of sense experience. Our graduations, our realization of hopes, our realization of dreams can be linked to specific days. A line of graphic text can bring us back to the day we first fell in love.

On Kawara One Million Years will be on display January 14 through February 14 (Valentine's Day) at David Zwirner.


jennine said...

oh he's great, i love seeing his paintings, they are in so many different' places with i guess the thousands he's done, it's probably not a surprise. but you know what's not always shown is the ephemera with each piece... i sure hope they show that, because that would also be interesting.

Ian Brown said...


Agreed. The scrapbook elements are nice. I read about a series he did with an elementary school. The children's drawings and assignments were exhibited with the Today paintings. That adds a touch of warmth to the pieces I think.