Painting the Date with On Kawara
On the 2nd of January 1933, Kawara On was born in Kariya, Aichi, Japan. The artist has become well-known as a conceptual artist living in New York since 1965, having shown his work in solo and group exhibitions, including the Venice Biennale in 1976 and present in numerous private collections. In 1966, he inaugurated the Today Series, an ongoing, open-ended work comprising thousands of canvases, many exhibited as yearly series, each representing the visual recording of numbers and (capital) letters capturing the date in which they were created. Although they appear stenciled, the letters of the month, sometimes abbreviated, along with the numbers of the day and year, are carefully drawn by hand in white upon a dark background, of varying rich matte hues (dark gray-browns, gray-greens, or blues but never completely black); the typeface or font also changes from piece to piece, as well as the size of the canvases. Anne Rorimer of the Institute of Chicago noted that Kawara applied four or five layers of paint to the background of each canvas and used an additional six or seven layers of paint for the date rendering thebrushwork so fine that it goes unnoticed.
As a rule, Kawara set out that a work had to be started and completed on the actual day of its date, and if not finished by the end of its specific day, it should be destroyed. How often are we as viewers in a museum instantly attracted to the corner in which the work is signed and dated? “The significance of these paintings lies in the fact that they depict not only a date, but also their own date. If, historically, paintings have been fixed in time by a date on the front or back of the canvas, the date itself for Kawara becomes the subject of the painting and the sole embodiment of the work’s figurative imagery. Each date painting, moreover, is unique if only by virtue of its particular date. Despite the fact that paintings of dates necessarily resemble each other, no combination of numerical or letter forms can ever be identical with another. Letters and numbers, which may be perceived as independent objects, allow an otherwise immaterial date to assume material form. The date paintings thus succeed in turning abstract, temporal measurement into the concrete reality of painting.” (Anne Rorimer, ‘The Date Paintings of On Kawara’, Art Institute of Chicago Museum Studies, Vol. 17, No. 2, 1991).
Kawara’s serialised date paintings have been compared to Monet’s haystacks, in which the Impressionist master studied the effect of changing light on these natural elements, the major difference being that Kawara studies our perception of time itself changing. He has also been likened to the Abstract Expressionist Jasper Johns, who similarly focused on numbers and letters, but his were still very much formal exercises, as he explored painterliness within the confines of his visual signs. Kawara’s concern with the dates is more conceptual, he is more interested with semantics, rather than visuality. In this respect, the monochrome scarcity of these works brings to mind Frank Stella’s early black paintings, Robert Ryman’s white paintings, and Piero Manzoni’s colourless works; all three Minimalists concentrated on rendering the work self-sufficient and detached from the world surrounding it. They intended to strip their work of emotional or spiritual undertones and by working and reworking the surface, they tried to eliminate any trace of human input. Likewise, Kawara covered his brush marks, to make the date paintings look almost photographic or as realistic as newspaper cuttings, reminiscent of snippets from Cubist collages.
Rorimer pointed out that just like in the monochromes of Stella, Ryman or Manzoni, in Kawara’s date paintings foreground and background merge, negating any illusionism or depth of perspective, turning them into self-reflexive statements. Kathryn Chiong wrote, “On January 4, 1966, On Kawara paints the first date painting. That information will never stop us from asking: what time are we looking at? The answer is never self-evident, for as Henning Weidemann argues, the spectator experiences the paintings’ “Today” as “Yesterday,” the preserved “uniqueness of the moment” generically, in calendarical terms. So not slow, fast, or even very punctual, the date painting hovers “in-between.” (Kathryn Chiong, ‘Kawara on Kawara’, October, Vol. 90, The MIT Press, Autumn, 1999). Each of Kawara’s date paintings ‘shout’ out their presence here and now, even as they already define a time set in the past.