Last week the Japanese, New York-based conceptual artist On Kawara opened an exhibition bringing together an unprecedented number of this date paintings from his Today series, Date Painting(s) in New York and 136 Other Cities (through February 11). This morning gallery partner and director Angela Choon led a tour of the exhibition, offering insights into the artist's process and the evolution of the seminal painting series since Kawara began it back on January 4, 1966.
The exhibition, as its title intimates, is divided between Today paintings made in New York City, where Kawara has lived since 1965 and those made in other cities during his travels. The artist has made hundreds if not thousands of the paintings over the last four and a half decades. Each one features the date of the day it was painted in white against a backdrop that varies from black or dark gray to bright blue or red. Dates are written and abbreviated in accordance with the custom of the country in which the painting is executed. If Kawara isn't able to finish a painting on the day he starts it, he destroys it.
A small room between the larger galleries features the very first painting in the series, "JAN. 4, 1966" (1966) and two hundred-year calendars (one for the 20th century and one for the 21st) on which Kawara has marked every day he's alive with a yellow dot. Days on which he completes a painting are marked with a green dot, and the relatively scarce red dots indicate the days when he managed to finish two paintings. Though "One Hundred Years - 21st Century '3,986days'" (2011) is behind glass, Choon said that Kawara will be updating it regularly during the exhibition. Likewise, in the wing devoted to date paintings made in New York, ample wall space has been left empty alongside the most recent piece in the series, "JAN. 3, 2012" (2012), to accommodate paintings made between now and February 11, when the exhibition closes.
This presentation highlights the surprising variety in the seemingly simple paintings, variations that only become clear with so many pieces alongside one another for comparison. The exhibition, for now, features about 170 date paintings, many drawn from the artist's collection. Clearest of all are the changes in size. Kawara uses eight different canvas sizes, Choon explained, which he refers to as A through H. Though he uses the smaller A and B sizes exclusively while traveling, many of the paintings in the New York section are very big. Three of the size H canvases painted at the time of the moon landing greet viewers, and thereafter one's perpetually trying to recall some famous event that might have happened on a day for which there's a large painting—often, there isn't one.
Other variations brought to light by the incredible number of Today paintings on view here include the many different shades of gray, black and blue—the occasionally used bold red seems to be consistent—and subtle changes to the clean sans serif typeface. In the early 70s, for instance, the letters get significantly bolder after being rather slim at the outset of the series. Alongside some of the canvases are displays showing the handmade cardboard boxes in which Kawara stores each of the paintings. Similarly clean and simple, some of them also contain newspaper pages from the day's local paper. Near "JULY 20, 1969" (1969) are entire newspapers chronicling the Apollo 11 mission.
A few of the paintings, on closer inspection, feature faint traces of the artist's process. For instance the exhibition's second-most recent piece, the bright red "FEB. 17, 2011" (2011), features the outline of a concealed layer of paint on which Kawara had painted the date an inch or so further to the right. Others feature faint traces of the pencil marks that he uses to help him keep the works' superbly clean lines. At two places in the exhibition two paintings from the same date are hung one above the other. Faced with the series' incredible breadth, one wonders how often Kawara doesn't finish a Today painting by midnight on the day he started it and has to destroy it.
"I'm not sure," said Choon, "but there is a story about that. He was playing backgammon or chess or monopoly with Joseph Kosuth and his wife, and On got up and said, 'I have to go finish my date painting.' And Kosuth said, 'nobody will no if you don't finish it,' to which On said, 'Yes, but I'll know.'"
On Kawara: Date Painting(s) in New York and 136 Other Cities is on view at David Zwirner Gallery through February 11.
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