Painting is an atemporal art, and, as such, ill suited to documenting the passage of time. Early Renaissance painters used a technique called multiple narrative, wherein one canvas contained depictions of a sequence of events. A stunning example is Filippo Lippi's Feast of Herod, which depicts Salome dancing and receiving the head of John the Baptist. Klimt and others captured time by juxtaposing different figures at different stages of life development, as Three Ages of Woman. Futurists played with dynamism and simultaneity, simulating the appearance of objects in motion. The ultimate painter of time, however, was On Kawara. Kawara documented the temporal flow of his own life by producing numerous series of highly repetitive, bureaucratically ritualistic works that enumerated daily trivialities with a kind of mechanical cruelty. Though starkly dispassionate in form, Kawara's work is a moving testament to human mortality. His own life came to an end this week.
Born in Japan in 1933, Kawara's early artistic efforts were figurative drawings, which, like much art of the '50s (think of Bacon, Dubuffet, and Giacometti) reflect an existential malaise brought on by the tragedy of war.
He would soon shift radically away from figurative work, and turn towards conceptualism, becoming one of its most important practitioners. On January 4, 1966, he began the Today series, for which he is most known. Kawara would painstakingly paint a date in a plain font on a uniformly colored canvas. Each canvas depicted the date of it's own creation, using the language and format of whatever country Kawara happened to be visiting, or Esperanto in the case of languages that use non-Roman type. If a painting was not completed on the date it began, Kawara would destroy it. On the back of each paining, he would affix a newspaper from the same day, with headlines (hidden from view), that chronicle the events of the last half century.
The first Today painting is reproduced above, along with an exhibition view from 1970. The installation reflects the compulsivity of Kawara's project. Though often called poetic, the work is more striking for its uncompromising austerity. The work would be oppressively solemn if it weren't for the Sisyphusian absurdity of the effort. Kawara spent over half a century painting numbers on canvas.
Other explorations of time followed the Today series. For example, Kawara was a pioneer of mail art, and would send postcards to friends, gallertists, and art writers documenting the precise time he woke up. The examples below are addressed to two German curators and fellow conceptual artist, John Baldessari. As the images indicate, Kawara was a globe trotter. He lived in Japan, Mexico, Europe, and, for many years, New York.
Kawara also found other ways to document his activities. In a piece called I Met, he listed all the people he met for the duration of the project. Each of many pages documents one day's encounters. In a related work, called I Went, Kawara documented his movements throughout the day, using city maps.
In a more overtly political series, Kawara preserved things that he read, usually newspapers, with headlines describing the triumphs and tragedies of our time--all without commentary.
Kawara also produced enormous calendars (or "Journals") stretching back and forwards in time. He added yellow dots on those days he was alive, and he used other colors to indicate whether he had completed a painting (or two) on each given day.
These calendars can be described as meta-paintings, since they are about Kawara's own production of paintings. Another meta-project is a series of color samples, corresponding to pigments used in his Today series.
Kawara's work is obsessively biographical, but also studiously impersonal. He tells us when he woke up each day, and where he went, but not what he did, thought, or felt--the normal contents of a biography. He also resisted being photographed (the image at the top is a rare exception). Such inscrutability is a theme of another series, called Codes, in which he deploys cryptic symbol systems. He includes a series of love letters in an indecipherable notation (below, left).
The Codes series also includes text of a French poem in Braille (above, right). This is an excersize in incomprehension. Kawara could understand neither Braille nor French, so the meaning of the poem remains hidden to him and to most viewers (assuming most "viewers" cannot read Braille, and fewer still would have an opportunity to touch the surface of the work). Kawara's Braille piece remind us that, as a conceptual artist, he was not particularly concerned with retinal dimensions of art. Everything is an idea, and the primary medium by which he delivered ideas was linguistic.
At the same time, the visual confrontation with Kawara's work, especially the Today series, can be quite stirring. The endless succession of dates testifies to our own impermanence. There is also a dizzying sense of our own insignificance when measured against the fullness of time. In a recent project, Kawara filled compendious volumes with neatly typed sequences of numbers corresponding to a million years, both past and future. Kawara's choice of neutral typography and repetitive execution can be read as a commentary on the tedium or banality of existence. Or as a comment on time's indifference. Or as an injunction to fill our passing days with things that matter.
The theme of impermanence, or more exactly mortality, is focally featured on one of Kawara's most poignant series. Over several years, Kawara sent telegrams to friends boasting "I am still alive." As with his postcards, we don't learn about the content of his life, but about it's persistence. Pure being, one might say.
Kawara continued delivering this message of persistence through the internet. He opened a Twitter account in 2009, and he began to post tweets saying "I AM STILL ALIVE." These continued to appear daily without further comment or elaboration for years. On the day of his death, another one of those ordinarily reassuring missives appeared, and then again the day after. Another appeared today, two days after his death (below). Kawara's Twitter posts were evidently machine generated; either that or he is communicating with us from the other side. Either way, the message is true. Kawara is here to stay. His obsessive documentation of time's passage has left an enduring mark in the history art.