Lot 35
  • 35

On Kawara

200,000 - 300,000 GBP
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  • On Kawara
  • May 21, 1985
  • titled and dated May 21, 1985; signed on the reverse
  • liquitex on canvas
  • 66 by 91cm.
  • 26 by 35 7/8 in.


Kohji Ogura Gallery, Nagoya
Acquired directly from the above by the present owner

Catalogue Note

Created in a larger format to commemorate dramatic news events, Kawara makes only about ten works of this size per year, with no more than one hundred in his entire career. Approximately half of these larger format canvases remain in the artist's own personal collection, and only one work of this size has been offered at auction in the last twenty years.

This work belongs to the Today series, no. 15, 1985 and is sold with a handmade cardboard box and a newspaper clipping from the New York Post dated Tuesday, May 21, 1985.

“I have keenly experienced consciousness of myself today, at 81 years, exactly as I was conscious of myself at 5 or 6 years. Consciousness is motionless. And it is only because of its motionlessness that we are able to see the motion of that which we call time. If it passes, it is necessary that there should be something which remains static. And it is consciousness of self which is static.”  - LEO TOLSTOI (1910)

Every life is many days, day after day. On Kawara’s philosophically based work addresses this by turning abstract, temporal measurement into the concrete reality of art. The two lots in this auction belong to his most iconic and celebrated body of work - the Today series: so called for their sole content being the date on which they were painted. Part of an ongoing project which he has undertaken since January 4, 1966, these meticulously painted monochrome fields, and the numbers and letters contained within them, are declarations of existence that attest to Kawara’s obsessions with repetition and the daily consumption of the finite time allotted to each of us in life.

Kawara is one of the key Conceptual artists and was one of the first to recognise the poetry of the idea as the basis for a radical new art form. The Today series stand as some of the most important documents in the history of the Conceptual movement and provide a heartbeat to one of its most profound oeuvres. At a time when the predominant visual interest was Pop art, Kawara, along with artists such as Bruce Nauman and Joseph Kosuth, developed an entirely new aesthetic based as much on the thought that lay behind the work as in the work itself. In a world which was becoming ever more complex in its imagistic make up, these artists found beauty in the simplified coherence of the everyday.

In contrast to the other works that form Kawara’s broad conceptual oeuvre, the Today series takes the form of traditional painting. Completing each canvas within the 24 hours allotted to the day on which it was begun, every Date painting follows the calendrical conventions and language of the place where he was at the time. Sometimes, as he has done in both these works, he also attaches a page from the newspaper of whichever city he was in - in this case from his adopted home of New York City -which is stored along with the painting in a handmade cardboard box. The box confirms the object-hood of the painting in its own right, whilst the newspaper anchors it – and also juxtaposes it to – an existing daily reality. The newspaper section accentuates the dichotomy between art and everyday actuality; a gesture which develops the tradition which began with Braque and Picasso’s introduction of newsprint into the fabric of papier collé. Kawara however, instead of integrating the newspaper into the work, deliberately keeps it physically separate – a further distinction between the different realities of art and non-art. The newspaper grounds the Today series in the world of continual flux, acting as a temporal gauge of the events and images in the ongoing, daily reality. Each work also possesses a subtitle. These range in content from a single word or thought, to long phrases and quotes. In recent years, this has commonly been reduced to just the day on which they were painted, as is the case of ‘Tuesday’ for May 21, 1985 and ‘Wednesday’ for July 8, 1981.

Kawara’s ideas-based aesthetic and the minimalist succinctness of the work – the sans-serif font painted onto a monochrome - belie the painstaking care with which it is made. “Four coats of paint are carefully applied to the ground, with enough time elapsing between for drying, followed by a rubbing down in preparation for subsequent coats. The outlines of the text are carefully drawn and then filled in with several coats of white paint with the use of tapered brushes, a ruler and set square, an X-acto blade and a brush for dusting. A considerable amount of time is spent eliminating imperfections, making minute adjustments to the outline and fine-tuning to the composition overall.” (Jonathan Watkins, On Kawara, London 2002, p. 78)

This is a lengthy process and it takes up the vast majority of Kawara’s day. By taking so much time to complete the work, the painting becomes the focus of his day and as such, both a celebration of the quotidian and an existential statement. It is his day defined, a time capsule for the future, a new version of the graffito “I was here”. This inhabitance of the present is a recurring motif in Kawara’s work – from the Todays to the rubber-stamped post-cards informing people at what time he got up to the telegrams to friends and colleagues around the world baldly stating “I am still alive.” For Kawara, “I am painting, therefore I am.”

In the wake of Abstract Expressionism and the Ecole de Paris, artists like Piero Manzoni, Robert Ryman and Frank Stella sought to negate the emotional and transcendental overtones of expression in an effort to redefine the pictorial surface as something totally divorced from any external reality. Kawara’s replacement of traditional imagery and composition with numbers and letters on an assertively flat surface runs parallel to this, and certainly reflects a similar critical awareness. Like Stella’s Black Paintings, Manzoni’s Achromes and Ryman’s Untitled white compositions, Kawara’s Date paintings are self-sufficient, self-reflexive statements. Devoid of information regarding their relationship to any lived reality – in the sense that one cannot actually ‘see’ the date they describe - they provide impassive icons of fixed time.

Pictorial and literal, factual and methodical, spatial and temporal – these simultaneous elements constitute the aesthetic horizon of Kawara’s Today series. Insistently removed from the extravagant pleasures of expression and without reference to a beginning or end or to any concept of progress or decline, these works seek to challenge the claims of the individual creative act. Illustrating the human capactiy to grasp time and space in abstract, visible terms, each Date painting can be seen to embody the rigour of the codes and systems which structure our existence.