Important Art by On Kawara
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.
One of few surviving works from a group of word and phrase-based paintings made in New York in 1964-65, Title consists of three panels whose bold red backgrounds frame the phrases "One Thing", "1965", and "Viet-nam".
Title was produced at a time when the U.S. military was subjecting North Vietnam to a massive bombing campaign. Kawara's early work - indeed, his early life - had been profoundly affected by the WWII bombings, and it is likely that the stark topical content of this piece, and even the boldness of the color, indicate a depth of emotional response which is belied by the overall minimalism of the work.
This is a highly significant piece in the evolution of Kawara's practice, one of his earliest works to incorporate a written message relaying the circumstances surrounding the piece's composition. This technique would become something of a signature style in the monumental processual projects of the proceeding decades. Title is also an important early example of Conceptual art, a movement taking off in New York in the mid-1960s. Works from the same period, such as Joseph Kosuth's One and Three Chairs (1965), are also concerned with bringing the written word into the visual field of the painting, and with using the interplay between text and visual form to produce subtle commentaries on the relationship between the finished artwork and the process of its creation.
December 17, 1979 is one of nearly 3,000 works produced over a span of almost fifty years as part of Kawara's Today series. The Date Paintings which make up the series consist of the date of composition, hand-painted in sans-serif font, against a monochrome background. These backgrounds are mostly dark grey, though paintings were also produced in shades of red and blue, and the tonal variation between different paintings is surprisingly wide. They ranged in size from 8 x 10 inches to 61 x 89 inches, although Kawara generally used the same eight increments of scale.
The Date Paintings are partly documents of a repetitive, meditative composition process which took on something of the quality of a ritual or liturgy, marking the passage of time, and of the artist's life. Kawara set two main formal parameters when producing the paintings: first, each date was formatted using the writing customs of the country in which it was composed, and written in the relevant language; second, each painting had to be completed on the day in question. If Kawara did not finish a painting by midnight, it was destroyed. A later work, the 100 Years Calendar (1984), used a color coding system to mark each day of Kawara's life when a painting was successfully produced. The craftsmanship involved in producing the Date Paintings was remarkable: each ground-wash was created using four separate coats of paint. The outlines of the letters and numbers were then hand-written, carefully spaced out to make sure the date sat perfectly in the center of the canvas, and filled in with several coats of white paint, using tapered brushes, a ruler, and a set square. The Today series is thus partly a monument to an investment of time, care, and labor which is almost invisible in the finished works, whose appeal to the viewer is immediate, not to say ephemeral.
Once the hidden craftsmanship of the pieces becomes evident, the Date Paintings suggest a series of engaging analogies between the present moment and the past which informs it. Because the date of each painting has necessarily passed by the time of its viewing, the pieces also suggest the ephemerality of the present moment: its instant passage into the past. In these ways, the Today series is classic Conceptual art, its idea-content, often informed by philosophy, more significant than its aesthetic content. At the same time, there remains visual variation and interest in the Date Paintings; the regularity of the paintings partly provides a backdrop against which elementary changes in color, size, wording, and so on, assume an exaggerated significance to the viewer.
Today is one of the longest-lasting series of works to be produced by an individual artist, and quite possibly one of the most methodically continuous activities ever undertaken by a human being. It is also broadly agreed to be one of the most important works of Conceptual art. As regards the development of Kawara's career, Today marked a definitive shift from figurative art to the conceptual, process-based projects, concerned with temporal and spatial location, which would characterize his most valuable contributions to modern art.