On Kawara's 'Jan. 4, 1966 "New York's Traffic Strike"'
On Kawara's 'Jan. 4, 1966 "New York's Traffic Strike"'

On Kawara was an artist of bellowing silence. For 50 years, he clipped newspaper articles, time-stamped postcards that he sent around the world, kept scrupulous records of his daily routines, and produced a cryptic cycle of paintings that bear the date of their making and nothing else. In isolation, each of these works is a dry, empty squib. Gathered en masse, as the Guggenheim has done for a new retrospective, they accumulate into an even more hermetic oeuvre. Some visitors, confronted with such an abundance of Kawara’s laconic pieces, have reported an austere epiphany of sorts, an insight into the nature of time. I missed out on that experience, but once I broke through my aversion to a show full of numbers, I found that On Kawara — Silence has a certain incantatory charm, ribboning up the ramp like data on a vintage ticker tape.

Born in Japan in 1932, Kawara spent most of his life in New York, where he died last year at 81. In the 1960s, he and a group of like-minded conceptualists that included John Baldessari, Joseph Kosuth and Sol LeWitt beat back the spreading chaos of the time with art that was cool, deadpan and spare. LeWitt articulated this methodical approach in 1970: “To work with a plan that is preset is one way of avoiding subjectivity . . . the artist would select the basic form and rules that would govern the solution of the problem. After that the fewer decisions made in the course of completing the work, the better.”

Kawara embraced that monkish discipline enthusiastically. Every day for a dozen years, he sent off two banal picture postcards that he had stamped with the date, the phrase “I got up” in block-cap letters, and the precise time he had woken that morning: “July 20, 1970 I GOT UP 6.20”, on a postcard of the UN building, for example. (The undertaking ended abruptly when someone made off with his stamp kit.) Each time he performed the ritual, he engaged in a meaninglessly precise act of self-revelation, documenting an insignificant moment without commentary or affect. Reassembled, the collection becomes a record of his travels, his jet lag, his naps, and his days of exhaustion — like a private investigator’s log.

On Kawara's 'Jun10 1975'
On Kawara's 'Jun10 1975'

During the same period, Kawara sent regular telegrams to friends and colleagues, each with a statement so dry and minimal that it practically undermines itself: “I AM STILL ALIVE.” (There is no record of how many cabled right back: “Mazel Tov.”) Each “still alive” is a still-life with words, a memento mori produced by a process purged of all intuition. For another contemporaneous project, “I WENT”, he traced his daily itinerary on a photocopied map, then bound the 4,740 pages together in 12 volumes. LeWitt would have been proud of such impeccable objectivity.

Except that LeWitt was a great artist precisely because he betrayed the spirit of his own manifesto. He dreamt up a system to quash his feelings, or at least prevent them from infecting his art, but they bubbled up anyway. He aimed to produce murals of mechanical rigour, and they turned out to tremble with pleasure. Kawara is more dismayingly consistent. His works refuse all sensual satisfaction or visual gratification. They purse their lips, shake their heads, and retreat into crabbed asceticism.

Kawara’s magnum opus is the “Today” series, in which he punctiliously hand-lettered the date of the painting’s creation, using a plain sans-serif on a background of grey, red or blue. (He had to complete the work in one day or destroy it — that was his rule.) Since he adopted the format of whatever country he was in, those minor differences yield an irregular syncopation: “Nov. 3, 1967”, “25 July 68”, and “16 Fev. 1969”, all on dark grey rectangles of slightly varying size. He tucked each painting into a fitted cardboard casket, along with an article clipped from that day’s paper. The Guggenheim has assembled what feels like innumerable examples, though they represent only a tiny portion of the thousands he cranked out over decades. The project ended with his death.

The series is a roll call of deceased days, each canvas a tombstone, transforming the museum into a cemetery of time. And yet the mood of “Today” is neither nostalgic nor elegiac. The pages of newspaper provide those who care to remember with some long-ago horror to dredge up — “Oh, so that’s who was being slaughtered in the spring of 1970!” But so many other artists have used newspapers evocatively, blowing photographs up into paintings and silkscreens, commandeering headlines to make a political point, or turning a timely and disposable bit of newsprint into something permanent and abstract. Kawara does none of these things; he just offers up the same litany of terrorist abominations, train crashes, oil spills and internecine wars that preoccupy us today. The digits are different, but Kawara’s world has changed hardly at all.

The Guggenheim exhibition is not so much mournful as depressed. The key to its personality lies somewhere in the 12 volumes of “One Million Years”, their pages filled with typed dates. It’s a lunatic’s reference book, useful if you wanted to check whether AD4567 will arrive before or after 4568. Kawara seems to have soothed his anxieties by binding time before it could slip away, making each entry matter so little that he could not get attached.

To May 3, guggenheim.org

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