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On Kawara

Japanese Painter and Conceptual Artist

Movements and Styles: Conceptual Art, Process Art, Post-Minimalism

Born: December 24, 1932 - Kariya, Japan

Died: July 10, 2014 - New York, NY

On Kawara Timeline

"I am Still Alive"

On Kawara Signature

Synopsis

On Kawara is one of the most enigmatic of modern artists. Like his forerunner Marcel Duchamp, Kawara retreated from the art scene, avoiding his own exhibition openings and declining to be interviewed, so that his public persona came to be defined solely through his work. But that work itself seems - at first sight - to offer little more reward to biographers. Instead, it methodically and meticulously documents the trajectory of On's life, without apparent ornament, an art based on ideas rather than aesthetics which sits firmly within the tradition of Conceptual art associated with Joseph Kosuth and Lawrence Weiner. However, the extraordinary duration of Kawara's process-based projects - one of which, his date-painting series Today, lasted almost fifty years, producing almost 3,000 individual works - and the meditative consistency with which he applied himself to his tasks, sets his oeuvre apart, and links his work to his background in Buddhist and Shinto philosophy. By drawing attention to the minutiae of daily existence, Kawara's work focuses our attention on the most basic elements of our experience of the world: our location on the planet, and our passage through time.

Key Ideas

On Kawara's artworks often present the viewer with a simple, linguistic message about the artist's life, such as "I Got Up" or "I Am Still Alive". In the case of the Today series, they simply record the date when the painting was produced. Such works abandon the project of stylistic 'advance' which had sustained modern art since the late-19th century, reverting to a simpler function which had sustained human creativity over a far longer period. Like the cave paintings at Altamira (which Kawara visited and was inspired by in the early 1960s) his work simply documents the fact that the artist was alive: that he occupied a position in time and space. Relaying the bare facts of his existence in this way reflected Kawara's grounding in Buddhism and Existential philosophy, and his struggle to find a way of meaningfully communicating with his audience after the horrors of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which he had lived through as a teenager in Japan.
On Kawara created some of the most long-lasting series of artworks by a single individual, methodically repeating the same activities - with small but significant variations - over years and decades. Occupying a position of semi-obscurity within the art-world for many years, these enormous bodies of work underscore the artist's commitment to documenting his ongoing existence with as little extraneous comment or emotive expression as possible. The simplicity of these projects belies the monumentality of the undertaking, which grants them a unique status in 20th-century art. Work on the Today series, for example, would have occupied the artist for several hours each day, and for years if not decades across the course of his life.
With projects such as I Got Up and I Am Still Alive - which involved mailing postcards and telegrams to friends and benefactors, at irregular intervals, over several years - On Kawara not only abandoned the artisanal techniques that still defined modern art to some extent in the early 1960s, but, more importantly, outsourced the 'completion' of his work to anonymous third parties. In leaving the delivery of his telegrams and postcards, for example - in a sense the final stage of the creative process - to the US postal service and Western Union delivery schedules, On Kawara emphasized the significance of concept over aesthetic form in a far more radical way than modern artists had previously attempted, in line with the most radical tendencies of Conceptual art.

Most Important Art

On Kawara Famous Art

Thinking Man (1952)

Thinking Man is one of On Kawara's earliest exhibited works. Featuring a starved, sick, or mutilated male figure in a claustrophobic room, this is a deeply uncomfortable image to engage with. The figure's flesh seems to be twisting around its limbs, while red pockmarks or score-shapes - suggestive of torture or sickness - cover the body. The stillness of the figure, and the prison-like confinement of the space in which he is set, enhance the impression of discomfort and fear.

This piece was exhibited in Tokyo to wide critical acclaim. It resonated with emotions in Japan at the time, as the country was still coming to terms with the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the horibble loss of life, and the blow to national pride. Many of Kawara's contemporaries depicted death and destruction in their work, though often in more directly representational, polemical works. In series like The Bathroom (1953-54), a set of paintings showing dismembered and bleeding bodies against a porcelain-tiled backdrop - Kawara showed that he could match Tokyo's Social Realist painters for cathartic gore. But while his "thinking man" clearly serves as a symbol for the mood of the country, and suggests the physical effects of nuclear fallout, the piece lacks the explicit political content of, say, Maruki Iri and Maruki Toshi's Hiroshima Panels (1950-82). The use of a distressed figure as a metaphor for the destruction of a country also sets Kawara's work alongside that of European post-war artists such as Alberto Giacometti, Francis Bacon, and Jean Dubuffet, while the near-caricature of a thinking stance is a possible nod to the existential condition as identified by contemporary French writers such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus.

Though an early work, and somewhat untypical of the artist, Thinking Man speaks to Kawara's existential concerns. It reflects a sense of the impossibility of meaningfully communicating the human condition which would be expressed in a different way through works of his mature, Conceptual period, such as the Today series.
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On Kawara Artworks in Focus:

Biography

Childhood and Education

On Kawara was born in 1932, raised in an intellectual family environment informed by aspects of Buddhist, Shinto, and Christian religion. In common with Japanese society as a whole, he was greatly affected by the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which occurred when he was a teenager, and which left him deeply unsettled, questioning the moral values underpinning human society.

After graduating from high school in 1951, he relocated to Tokyo, where he spent much of his time in bookstores, studying European philosophy and political and psychoanalytic theory. He quickly acquired a reputation within the Japanese avant-garde art scene, attaching himself to the Avant-Garde Art Association established by Kikuji Yamashita and other painters of a broadly leftist, Social Realist persuasion. Art historian Jung-Ah Woo writes that at this time, Kawara stood for a "new generation of social realism", "determined to confront the reality of Japan's postwar society with a vision unclouded by the older generation's nostalgia for the prewar past." But Kawara's own 1950s work, such as Thinking Man, eschews obvious social commentary for a more elliptical, surrealist style, though still clearly imbued with political content. Just as he was gaining a cult-like following in Tokyo, Kawara became frustrated with the art scene there. He left Japan and set out on the road towards biographical erasure which would eventually result in his refusal to write about his work or life.

Early Period

In 1959, Kawara moved with his father to Mexico City, where he remained for four years, using it as a base to study modern art - indeed, some writers have commented on the affinity between Kawara's early painting style and that of Mexican contemporaries such as David Alfaro Siqueiros - and to travel around the country. In Mexico, Kawara later recalled, he first became aware of time as an intrinsic, potentially unpredictable backdrop to human experience: in Japan, everything had run on schedule; in Mexico, schedules, timetables, itineraries, were often inaccurate. Because the moment in time which one was living through did not always contain the events and occurrences one had expected, time became a more coherent, tangible presence in the mind. For a short period during 1961-62, Kawara attended the art department of Mexico City University.

In 1962, Kawara moved from Mexico City to New York, where he remained for eight months before travelling to Paris. From Paris he travelled to Toledo in Spain, making a pilgrimage to view the Altamira cava paintings. In 1964, back in Paris, he began a series of drawings that he continued after returning to New York in the autumn of that year. The 1964 Paris - New York series abandons the figurative representation of his 1950s work for combinations of obscure diagrams and symbols, sketches of imagined sculptural environments and installations, and brief, obscure, written messages. Many of these techniques are shared in common with Minimalist painting and Conceptual art; art critic Roberta Smith describes 1964 Paris - New York as "minimalism frazzled, after a hard day at the office."

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On Kawara Biography Continues

Kawara settled in New York in 1964 - just as the Conceptual art movement was taking off in the city - and began to create the kinds of works that would characterize his mature period. Some of his early-to-mid 1960s work contained sequential arrangements of shapes suggestive of a language or code system. Others were monochrome paintings featuring single phrases or words ("ART", "CIPHER", "UNTITLED", "GO HOME AND CRY ON YOUR PILLOW"). Although Kawara chose to destroy most of his paintings from this period, these works did convince him of the need to incorporate the written word into his art. The most significant of Kawara's surviving works from this time is Title, whose explicit political content - related to the Vietnam War - foreshadows a consistent feature of his later work: its framing with reference to contemporary social and political events. This was later achieved by packing his Date Paintings in newspaper-lined boxes, and by producing binders full of newspaper clippings for his I Read series.

Mature Period

By the late 1960s, Kawara had completely abandoned public discussion of his practice. This has made documenting his life and work from that point onwards very difficult, with art historians forced to piece together a biography from the documentary records included in - and produced in conjunction with - Kawara's work. As a Conceptual artist, however, Kawara was as concerned with documenting the making of his art as with its final form and appearance, so more of this evidence is furnished than we might expect.

On January 4, 1966, Kawara began the Today series, a project which he would continue for almost fifty years. The so-called Date Paintings that make up the series consist of square canvases of varying sizes, on which the date of the painting is written in sans serif font, with various compositional features altering depending on the date, and on the artist's location. Undertaken with a level of precision and care belied by the simplicity of their final appearance, the Today project establishes the modus operandi that would sustain Kawara's creative practice until his death in 2014; various projects similarly concerned with 'marking time' were established over the next few years. The Today project also spawned a set of associated, ritualistic practices that became almost as creatively significant as the composition of the paintings themselves. Each painting, for example, was stored in a box lined with newspaper from the day of composition, and annual journals were produced documenting various facts about the composition of the Date Paintings.

Because of the isolation in which Kawara worked from the late 1960s onwards, his biography from that point onwards is, to all intents and purposes, identical with the record of his artistic activity from that point. Bearing this in mind, other significant long-term projects include: I Read (1966-95), a set of binders of annotated newspaper clippings, with a page added for each day on which a Date Painting was made; I Got Up (1968-79), a series of picture postcards sent daily, in pairs, to friends, family, and patrons bearing the inscription "I GOT UP AT ... "; I Met (1968-79), a set of lists, documenting by date everyone whom the artist met over an eleven-year period; and I Am Still Alive (1970-2000), a series of telegrams sent at irregular intervals to random recipients, assuring them, in bleakly comic fashion, that the artist was not yet dead.

On Kawara died in 2014. In keeping with the spirit of his work, his obituaries noted that he been alive for 29,771 days.


Legacy

Kawara's process-based art practice, which made use of materials such as postcards, telegrams, maps, and calendars, opened doors for other Conceptual artists seeking to redefine their practices beyond the canvas, and for the integration of ephemeral media into the fine arts. As regards his relationships with his contemporaries, the list of recipients for Kawara's telegrams and postcards during the I Got Up and I Am Still Alive periods - including Paula Cooper, Lucy Lippard, Sol LeWitt, and John Baldessari - indicates his standing within the Conceptual art scene fostered in 1960s New York.

Kawara's influence also extends into the present. Contemporary Japanese sculptor Tatsuo Miyajima has attributed the use of numbers in his work to the influence of Kawara's Today series. Similarly, the mail artist David Horvitz has cited Kawara's I Got Up and Telegram series as the biggest influence on his practice, which is similarly preoccupied with the passage of time. Horvitz has praised Kawara's work for its "existential and even Zen" qualities. We can also sense the influence of On Kawara in the work of second-generation Conceptual artists working with text such as Jenny Holzer - especially from her Truisms series onwards - and Barbara Kruger, who created work with banner-like headlines.

Influences and Connections

Influences on artist

Artists, Friends, Movements

Influenced by artist

Artists, Friends, Movements

On Kawara
Interactive chart with On Kawara's main influences, and the people and ideas that the artist influenced in turn.
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View Influences Chart

Artists

Marcel DuchampMarcel Duchamp
John CageJohn Cage
Kikuji Yamashita
Maruki Iri

Friends

Clement GreenbergClement Greenberg
Kasper König

Movements

MinimalismMinimalism
Existentialism in Modern ArtExistentialism in Modern Art
On Kawara
On Kawara
Years Worked: 1951 - 2014

Artists

John BaldessariJohn Baldessari
Ed RuschaEd Ruscha
Sol LeWittSol LeWitt

Friends

Sol LeWittSol LeWitt
Lucy LippardLucy Lippard

Movements

Conceptual ArtConceptual Art

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Cite this page

Content compiled and written by Ximena Kilroe

Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

" Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Ximena Kilroe
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
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Useful Resources on On Kawara

Videos

Books

Websites

The books and articles below constitute a bibliography of the sources used in the writing of this page. These also suggest some accessible resources for further research, especially ones that can be found and purchased via the internet.

biography

On Kawara

By Jonathan Watkins

On Kawara - Silence Recomended resource

By Jeffrey Weiss

On Kawara - Consciousness. Meditation. Watcher on the Hills

By Franck Gautherot

On Kawara, Date Paintings in Private Collections

By Candida Höfer

On Kawara - Silence (includes access to audio guide from exhibit)

February 2015
The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum

On Kawara

Museum of Modern Art

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