In his work, Kawara is not merely counting or accumulating days and experiences. He has found a means of expressing the vast incommensurability between the scale of human life and the scale of cosmic time.
An icon of conceptual art and a philosophical rumination on the brevity of time, On Kawara’s MAY 27, 1985 forms part of the artist’s seminal Today series. The very first painting was completed on 4 January 1966, and with this work Kawara embarked on a meditative path to create paintings marked with the date of their execution. For nearly five decades until his death in 2014, this extensive series chronicled the artist’s life. Each canvas represents a powerful artistic treatise on the passing of time, an index for a moment that has inextricably vanished. Insisting on the profound truth of the calendar, each of Kawara’s paintings from the Today series adheres to the artist’s self-imposed restriction that the work must be completed before midnight on the day of its inception. The work documents not only the date of its making but also, in an accompanying hand-crafted box, a selection of cuttings pulled from local newspapers. Aspiring to the condition of a time capsule, the Today paintings are simultaneously personal and universal in their narratives, capturing a lived moment within the ever-expanding, ever-unravelling tapestry of human existence.
Time, as a force, is made palpable in Kawara’s minimalist aesthetic of the starkly contrasted date set against a monochrome black background. Throughout the series, each date is composed following the language and convention of the place where Kawara made each painting, and, if a work was not finished by midnight of the same day, he destroyed it. Having emerged during the height of Minimalism and Conceptual art, the Today series appropriated the traditional canvas medium to blur the boundaries between painting, sculpture, installation art and performance. Kawara creates a bespoke hand-made cardboard box for each painting, lined with an excerpt from a local newspaper, and fabricated to fit the dimensions of its accompanying work. While the canvas itself becomes a powerful signifier for the continuity of time in the face of one’s one temporal limitations, the addition of the box and newspaper clipping reinforces a sense of the autobiographical in Kawara’s practice.
Kawara’s inclusion of the newspaper further functions as an anchor that ties the existential integrity of the date to its temporal reality in the phenomenological world. Juxtaposed against the stark impersonality of the painted date, each newspaper clipping incites an infinite number of personal associations and emotive connections. As such, the newspaper grounds the Today series within our world of continual flux, acting as a temporal gauge of local and world events in the on-going, daily reality of unstoppable time. As curator René Denizot observed: “Each piece is a finished product, a point in a calendar. But in the contemplation of the series of days devoted to the task of making these paintings, we glimpse a sign of life beyond the dated works themselves, on the horizon of an unlimited time: an act of rupture within the continuity of time” (René Denizot, On Kawara, London 2002, p. 114).
Kawara meticulously followed the same ritual when creating these works. The artist, who always remained consistent in his method of production, applied four coats of acrylic paint to the canvas ground – canvases that ranged in size from 20.5 by 25.4 centimetres to 155 by 226 centimetres. The works’ immaculate surface is the result of a precise, near-calligraphic process, in which Kawara slowly builds up and then reduces layers of acrylic paint to produce a flawless finish. Initially applied with a coarse brush, migrating down to a finer gradation of hairs with each new coat, Kawara’s painstaking treatment of paint produces deep intensification of colour – an impenetrable void upon which his uniform sans-serif text is indelibly inscribed. Using a ruler, set-square and an X-Acto blade, Kawara draws the outline of each character before adding several coats of white paint with a tapered brush. Each completed painting is then registered in a journal, using a swatch of the paint mixture applied to a small rectangle and glued to a chart. Viewed collectively, the Today paintings ultimately stand as existential relics, pristine records of time laid down by a universal scribe. As Christian Scheidemann has asserted, ‘Kawara is a master of calligraphy, a man of belief and, of course, one of the great artists of our time’ (C. Scheidemann, quoted in J. Watkins, R. Denizot et al, On Kawara, London 2002, p. 30). Repeating the same technique, subject, and colour variations over many decades, the quasi-automation of Kawara’s meditative painting ritual is reminiscent of artists such as Roman Opalka, who equally strived for an artistic expression of time made visible via its painterly process. Addressing each day as its own entity within the unerring passage of time, the Today series posit the calendar as a human construct qualified only by cultural context and personal experience.