On Kawara by David Criner

Oct. 31, 1978

I used to live for the highs more than I do now, and that included when it came to making art. For years I would go to extreme circumstances in order to escape the everyday, to thrust myself toward what I thought of as the sublime. It was during moments of heightened mind that I believed art was at its most inspired, or that one should feel most alive.

More recently, however, I have come to view moments of profundity as little more than occasional peaks in a larger stream of consciousness. I’ve adopted a new path, highlighted less by moments of ecstasy, and colored more by steady, plodding routine. I find that inspiration is almost unnecessary and that the most interesting things in art and life often present themselves as part of the fabric of the ordinary. While I have always worked hard in the studio, it comes as a breath of fresh air to be able to wonder at the everyday.

The Japanese-born painter and conceptual artist, On Kawara, may have embraced this “nowness” as well as anyone I can think of. Having passed away last summer, he is best remembered by what are called “date paintings”–also known as the Today Series–a collection of canvases consisting of calendar dates painted on solid backgrounds.

But I will be honest. Before I knew anything about Kawara’s manner of working, I had little interest in his art. Several years ago, I first glanced at Oct. 31, 1978 at the Chicago Art Institute, and I thought to myself, “How colorless, how boringly simplistic. Who couldn’t do that, given a stencil and an ounce of forethought? Give me some substance.” I quickly moved to the next painting.

I learned much later that Kawara did not use a stencil and allowed himself no more than the course of a day to complete a painting. If he wasn’t able to finish by the end of the day, he would destroy the work and start another one later. Given this information, I became fascinated, and decided to give his work a second chance.

I approached Oct. 31, 1978 again. I now noticed a directness within the methodical precision and flatness of the piece. As I stared further, I became aware of an austerity that could only transmit itself via the deadpan matter-of-factness of Kawara’s style. The painting lacked adornment, allowing me to consider the significance of the particular date purely on my own terms. The impersonal became personal as I remembered Halloween when I was ten. Almost as suddenly, my focus returned to the cold sterility of the image, and I was back in the gallery space.

Afterwards, I learned that when Kawara completed a painting, he would place it in a custom-fit box with a newspaper from the day and location from which he worked. This was his way of enshrining the piece, something like burying a time capsule for future generations to discover. A constant traveler, Kawara made art in many cities around the world. It was as though his artistic practice ultimately took the place of his having a permanent residence. His art became his constant, his home.

Beyond prolific, Kawara completed hundreds of canvases from 1966 to 2014. He also sent daily telegrams from wherever he was, each bearing the unusual yet obvious message, “I AM STILL ALIVE.” Between 1968 and 1979, he created his information series, I Got Up, in which he sent two picture postcards from his location on each morning. All of the 1,500 cards list the artist’s time of getting up, the date, the place of residence and the name and address of the receiver. Each was rubber-stamped with the time Kawara got up that morning, and the length of each correspondence ranged from a single card to hundreds sent consecutively over a period of months. In 1973 alone he sent postcards from twenty-eight cities. His works were and are indeed facts, unvarnished affirmations of a day’s passing.

Among other things, Kawara’s life and art stress discipline, the importance of daily practice. We live in a time when ritual is often overshadowed by emphasis on the external, as we yield to countless distractions from outside ourselves–television, the Internet, text messaging. On Kawara, through his devotion to the here and now, delivered a satori-like realization of the present. For him, no moment in waking life was to be taken for granted.

Top image: On Kawara, Oct. 31, 1978 (Today Series, “Tuesday”), Acrylic on canvas, with two newspapers, 61 x 89 in, 1978

David Criner is an American artist working in Chicago. In his recent work, he transforms twentieth century news and advertising material in pursuit of an image which celebrates the present moment. He received a BFA in Painting from the University of Illinois in 1991, an MFA in Painting from the University of Kansas in 1995, and has exhibited his work throughout the United States and Europe. David teaches at Northeastern Illinois University.