The Japanese-American artist On Kawara (1933-2014) is no more. The conceptual artist, famous for his ‘date paintings’, passed away at the age of 81 in 2014.
Born in Kariya, Japan, Kawara drew and painted distressing surrealistic images until 1956. From 1965 on he settled in New York and undertook many trips around the world. Everywhere he went he worked steadily on a body of work that captured chronology and location. He used newspaper clippings, photocopies of maps, postcards and telegrams. Yet he expressed his concept about time and place the most compelling with painting.
His Today series (started January 4, 1966), also known as ‘date paintings’, consist of paintings of data in tight, white numbers and letters against monochrome backgrounds of blue, dark blue gray, green gray, brown gray or red. In accordance with the national language and the usual notation of the place, Kawara recorded the day on which he produced the canvas, for example OCT.21.1971 or 30 Oct. 1976. Within the series, he worked with eight different sizes, from 20,5 x 25,5 cm to 155 x 226 cm. He painted meticulously layer upon layer until a bright, high contrast image was created.
Each painting was stored separately in a cardboard box, along with a clipping of a local newspaper of that day. Was a painting not finished at the beginning of a new day, Kawara would destroy it. In his Journals the artist noted the date (= title), size, color, subtitle and serial number. The subtitles were diverse: phrases derived from newspaper clippings, for example, ‘The Viet Nam Conference in Honolulu’ (8 Feb. 1966); a single word, such as ‘Estudiantes’ ( 1 June 1968); or personal comments as ‘I collect the painted days’ (18 Nov. 1966). From 1973 on, Kawara decided only to mention the day of the week.
With his death no more ‘date paintings’ will be produced ever again. However with this lifelong work today and tomorrow will be forever Kawara.
The Guggenheim Museum in New York held a retrospective of Kawara’s work from February 6 until May 3 2015.