Japanese Conceptual Artist On Kawara: 1933–2014
By Susanna Chen
On July 10, the passing of On Kawara, a Japanese-born painter and conceptual artist, was confirmed by David Zwirner, the gallery which represented the artist since 1999, with an announcement posted on its website. He was 81 years old.
Kawara was born in 1933, in the Aichi Prefecture of Japan. Having lived through the 1945 bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as a teenager in Tokyo, Kawara started his career with works reflecting the shocking and distorted imagery of that time. He first exhibited in Japan at the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum in the early 1950s. Later, he began to travel the world and eventually settled in New York in 1965. Over that period, Kawara gradually moved from grotesque drawings of amputees and body parts, most of which he destroyed, to conceptual works that explore human mortality.
His most well-known project, the “Today” series (which he started in 1966 and produced throughout his career), began in New York and consider notions of time, space and human existence. The conceptual paintings of this series were produced according to a self-imposed system, where only the date of creation, written in the language of the country in which it was painted, was marked on each canvas. Each piece took Kawara around eight or nine hours to complete, and if unable to finish that day, he would scrap the whole canvas. Over the course of his career, the artist managed to create over 1,000 of these date paintings.
“On Kawara—Silence,” an upcoming retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, was announced on July 7, just a few days before the artist’s passing. The exhibition will feature a complete collection of the artist’s works from 1966 to 2014, including his postcards, paintings, maps, telegrams and the “Today” series. “On Kawara—Silence” is scheduled to open at the Guggenheim on February 6, 2015.
Inspired by a series of telegrams that Kawara created in the 1970s, an unofficial On Kawara Twitter bot (a computer program that automatically sends out messages) has been tweeting the words “I AM STILL ALIVE” every day since 2009. Even after Kawara’s passing, the account has continued to update its daily message, reminding people of the artist’s everlasting spirit.