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Five Elements of Contemporary Art: Time: On Kawara's Selections from TODAY series


Walker Art Center



Institution Walker Art Center


Born in Japan in 1932, On Kawara travels frequently and has lived in New York City since 1965. His artwork is associated with conceptual art, a form in which the idea or concept is the artwork and is more important than the finished “product.” For Kawara, life, work, and the inevitable passage of time are all connected. Many of the artist’s works, including his date paintings, postcards, and telegrams, are about marking time. His 1993 exhibition at the Dia Center in New York featured a 10-volume book titled One Million Years (Past), which listed the typed dates of the preceding one million years. Its companion sound piece, One Million Years (Future), played recorded male and female voices counting one million years into the future. The use of repetition in Kawara’s art provides rhythm and hope with the promise of the next piece. The artist prefers to indicate his life dates by the number of days he has lived, followed by the date on which the work was made. For example, in a January 2006 exhibition at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., he listed 26,697 days. Though his work is widely exhibited and a strong influence on many of today’s artists, Kawara remains reclusive. He does not give interviews or allow photographs, and he does not comment about his artwork.

Kawara began his TODAY series (also commonly referred to as “date paintings”) in New York City in 1966. Every day since then, he has hand-painted a stretched canvas in black, gray, blue, or red acrylic paint, over which he adds the date in white. The month is depicted in the language of the country he is in at the time of painting. Each canvas takes eight to nine hours to make; if he does not finish it within the day, he destroys the work. These particular examples from the series were executed during the artist’s stay in Stuttgart, Germany, in 1989. The paintings are placed in a handmade cardboard box, lined with the front page of the local newspaper, so that the artist’s personal calendar day is placed within historical time and place. The TODAY series is also related to the ancient Japanese ritual called “reading of the days,” which was used to predict the arrival of the gods. So far, the artist has made some 2,000 date paintings in more than 100 cities, including Tokyo, New York, Stockholm, Stuttgart, and Northeast Margaree, Nova Scotia. The project may end only with the artist’s death.

Conceptual Art
The term “conceptual art” came about in the 1960s to describe art that values the concept or idea more than the finished object or methods and materials used to make it. Conceptual works can take numerous forms, including painting, sculpture, performance, photography, or video. A piece of conceptual art could also be simply a set of written instructions or a found object.

1.    How does On Kawara measure time? How do you keep track of your days?
2.    What effect does repetition have on the date paintings? What if the artist only painted a single date?
3.    What activities or rituals do you perform or participate in every day? How does time determine those activities?
4.    What is the concept for the artist’s date paintings? In what ways is his idea more important than the finished paintings?

The idea of time is a crucial subject for many contemporary artists. Through the creation of a painting, sculpture, or photograph, an artist may systematically document the passage of time or isolate a specific moment in time, whether mundane or historically significant. Other art media, such as video or digital works, manipulate the audience’s perception of time by requiring a committed viewing period. Video and film also allow artists to work with time in different ways by using fast-forward, slow motion, freeze-frame, and repetition, which makes apparent the differences between recorded and real time. An artist may also evoke the effects of time by allowing the degradation or orchestrated destruction of a work of art to reflect ways that our world changes and evolves.

“Kawara expresses no particular opinion about time; he just sets it forth in more or less concrete form, to be looked at and experienced.”
—Sarah Valdez, Art in America, April 2001

“On the day I write this, On Kawara will have been alive for 25,546 days. He is around 70 years old (the leap years trip me up) and counts the days. Does he also count the cigarettes, the dinners out, the aeroplane trips and laundry tickets? For a long time he made a map of his daily walks and cab rides. He made lists of the people he met. He sent telegrams to friends and colleagues around the world, telling them he was still alive, ‘I am still alive - On Kawara’, and for some years he also sent out postcards from wherever he was, each rubber-stamped with a message detailing his temporary address and the time he got up. Then someone stole the rubber stamp, so he stopped. . . .  When On Kawara wakes up, does he think one day more or one day less? We do not know.”
—Adrian Searle, The Guardian (UK), December 3, 2002

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Type: Instructional Material
Grades: 4-Adult
Instructional Method: Classroom Discussion
Rights: © 2008 Walker Art Center
Added to Site: June 8, 2010