On Kawara was born on December 24, 1932, and died last summer just as curators were putting the finishing touches on his show at the Guggenheim in New York, “Silence,” which opened February 6 and represents the first major museum overview of his work. The show exhibits his postcards, telegrams, maps, newspaper cuttings, journals, calendars, and his date, or “Today,” series—the paintings for which he is best known. He made the first of these on January 4, 1966, and all of them signal an attempt to distill the artist’s life into data, abstraction, or a hyphen between dates on a tombstone.
Curator Jeffrey Weiss, who organized the exhibition, said that Kawara had always wanted to do a show at the Guggenheim because of the museum’s unique relationship to time. With the building’s spiraling layout, it is the only museum in the world in which, gazing around its famous rotunda, you can see most of a show at once. This layout, compared to other museums, tends to render visitors more blasé with their time than usual, as they zip up or down the ramp, putting an artist or movement on fast forward, or rewind.
Kawara, whose practice remained essentially unchanged for 40 years, puts the place on pause. That is why, according to Weiss, the museum avoided using the term “retrospective” for the show. “The word implies a way of looking at a career across time,” Weiss explained, “and since Kawara’s work concerns itself in a very specific and deliberate way with the passage of time, referring to a big show by him as a ‘retrospective’ almost sounds like a mistake.”
Kawara’s most beloved works, and the ones that dominate this show, are his “Today” paintings, single-color works that consist of nothing more than the date on which they were made written in large white font on canvases that range from 8 by 10 to 61 by 89 inches (certain significant dates, like July 20, 1969, are naturally the subject of larger works). The hand-mixed, four-layer colors (mostly blue, red, and gray) pop, and the fonts are handsome. At the time of Kawara’s death, his gallery, David Zwirner, estimated that he’d lived 29,771 days. It’s a credit to the work he put into them, as objects, that the Today painting total is far fewer.
But he was a painter only technically. Text, story, and character—the character of Kawara that he steadily projected into the world every day through these works—were his real mediums. He was as much a writer as an artist. As if in reference to this, the Guggenheim, which consulted with Kawara about “Silence” before his death, decided to break the show up into novel-like chapters, each consisting of one of his series: “I Got Up” (postcards rubber stamped with those words and nothing else), “One Million Years” (in which two performers, reading from a 20-volume book, announce the years from 998,031 B.C. through A.D. 1,001,995), “I Am Still Alive” (where he sent out telegrams containing that phrase as well as “I AM NOT GOING TO COMMIT SUICIDE DON’T WORRY”), “I Went” (a chronicle of where he went, drawn on maps; he was dogmatic enough not to go anywhere else if he’d already completed that day’s record), “I Met” (binders full of lists of the people he met that day), “I Read” (newspaper stories), and “Journals” (notebooks and calendars in which he chronicled his “Today” paintings’ progress, with a green dot on each day a “Today” painting was completed).
Kawara’s information-heavy, tongue-in-cheek celebration of his existence’s banality has much in common with today’s obsession with social networks. Time is his readymade, and self-deprecating pseudo-narcissism his topic. He was a meticulous technician and he based the works on strict rules: He wrote the date in the format of the country in which he made the painting. If the country didn’t use a Roman alphabet, he would use Esperanto. The paintings come with boxes and part of a newspaper from that day. The decision to make his smallest canvas size three-quarters of an inch larger after the year 2000, because he needed more space for the wider numerals, required much thought. When Kawara lost the rubber stamp he used for the “I Got Up” series, he stopped sending those postcards.
The common denominator in all of Kawara’s works is the artist himself. “Kawara’s self lies at the center of the oeuvre,” Weiss writes in his catalogue essay, noting of course that “self” is a character, and a reclusive one at that. The work conjures the image of an ascetic who does little beyond reading the newspaper and tracking his own movements.
Part of the effect of the art, however, derives from the distance between the character and the real Kawara. Weiss likens this to the relationship between Marcel, the narrator of In Search of Lost Time, and Proust himself, even if Kawara’s time is not lost but captured.
Kawara was born On Kawahara and was a high-school student in Japan when the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki (on August 6, 1945, and August 9, 1945, respectively). Shortly after this he moved to Tokyo, where he began to make art, and, to his displeasure, became something of an art star. His best-known work from this period is surprisingly figurative: a series featuring mutilated naked bodies and body parts on bathroom floors. Another piece from his early years, one that might be thought of as a precursor to his “Today” series, is a triptych that reads, across its three panels, “1965,” “One thing,” and “Viet-Nam.”
Kawara never explained publicly why he began making his “Today” paintings, nor did he bother to explain much else about his life, about which little is known besides the work that occupied a good deal of his time. And yet time—the topic he returned to daily—was something he seemed to exist entirely outside of. The world changed, but his work registered this as only a different set of numbers.
As much as they might appear otherwise, works in the “Today” series were anything but dashed off. Each piece took around five to seven hours to make, and if Kawara did not finish before midnight on the day he started he would take a blade to the canvas and mark it as incomplete. A friend staying with him on one January 30 later noted that there were paintings for January 28 and January 29 of that year, yet none for the 30th. Someone once suggested that it might not be the worst thing in the world, from a practice perspective, if Kawara, in his old age, started giving himself three days to make one painting. At this he apparently bristled.
He also managed to have time that was his own—time to have romantic entanglements, to fish, to play chess, mah-jongg, and Monopoly, the latter of which he used to play in the 1960s against such like-minded artists as Joseph Kosuth—not, as one might expect, to make some kind of critique of capitalism, but simply because they liked the game.
“He was just a normal person,” said the artist Lawrence Weiner, one of the few people who agreed to talk about Kawara the man, and he did so only because the two artists didn’t actually know each other very well. “It’s strange. They’ve done the same thing to Hanne Darboven, these people who live their lives, but don’t live their lives exactly like they teach you in art school. They start to tell you that they’re odd but they’re not. They go out, they eat food,”—did Kawara miss an opportunity to preempt food blogs with a series, “I Ate”?—“and they live their lives and they have relationships with artists. It’s just not a constant thing for them.”
What does all of Kawara’s self-documentation amount to? Unlike Whitman, he didn’t sing of himself; he monologued on himself, with repetition and enough irony to imply we would never, ever know him, no matter how much data he put out into the world. One can’t quite claim that Kawara’s work anticipated the invention of social media, but who could ever have guessed we’d all end up living like him, broadcasting our every move, no matter how banal? As it turns out, prying into the life of Kawara is akin to perusing interests on a Facebook page. Kawara, though, was not merely claiming that the only difference between him and his audience is the ways they spend their days, the places they go, and the people they encounter. The real difference is that everyone besides Kawara seems to think these things make a difference.
Kawara’s death last summer infuses the Guggenheim show with new meaning. As long as we live there’s a chance that we will change, but Kawara—in his work, at least—would seem to have renounced this possibility long ago. Many artists have attempted to make sense of the period at the end of the sentence we write with our lives; Kawara seemed to be adding one to the end of each day, exploring the temporal mortality that existed in every 24-hour timespan.
The Beckettian humor that we still perceive in Kawara’s work, even in the face of his own mortality, is uncanny because we’re all familiar with the laws of such comedians as Andy Kaufman: do something unfunny once and it’s not funny, do it for a prolonged period and it’s very funny, keep doing it and it becomes dark and uncomfortable. Kaufman has something else in common with Kawara, which is that some people think he’s still alive. Every day, Kawara’s fake Twitter handle announces to its 5,000 followers, “I Am Still Alive,” followed by the addendum “#art.” These messages may receive many re-Tweets, but they miss the point of his work. If we want to persist in the belief that Kawara lives on through his art—his daily record of his existence—it is because, as with Kaufman, we still want the bright side to peak through that darkness, still want the possibility that both men simply chose to drop the act and go away. Because otherwise the joke’s on them, just as it eventually will be on all of us.
Dan Duray is senior staff writer at ARTnews.
A version of this story originally appeared in the March 2015 issue of ARTnews on page 64 under the title “Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow….”
CORRECTION 02/13/2015, 3:15 p.m.: An earlier version of this article misstated the number of “Today” paintings that exist. On Kawara’s gallery, David Zwirner, estimates that the artist lived 29,771 days. Kawara did not produce 29,771 “Today” paintings. The post has been updated to reflect this.