On Kawara at the Tokyo Museum of Contemporary Art

by Monty DiPietro

Hyperbolical as it sounds, there was a time when Conceptual art threatened the very existence of art.

In 1967, American Conceptualist pioneer Sol LeWitt wrote in an Artforum magazine essay, "In Conceptual art the idea or concept is the most important aspect of the work...the execution is a perfunctory affair."

Others went further, contending that it was not actually necessary for artists to produce a physical artwork - that the concept was an end in itself.

The now-cliche challenge of the time, "But is it art?" was met smugly by LeWitt’s fellow Minimalist Donald Judd, "If someone says it’s art, it’s art," meaning that if a Conceptualist told you he had just created the greatest art ever, you’d have to take his word because he wasn’t about to reduce the concept just so that he could exhibit it.

Just in time, New York-based artist On Kawara [1932 - ] found a way to keep galleries and museums in business, by producing Conceptual art that documented the simple fact of his own existence in time - telegrams and postcards sent to friends, newspaper clippings, and his best-known work, "date paintings."

In the thirty years since, the artist has produced over 2,000 paintings which simply record the date on which they were made, depicted in white letters and numbers on a monochrome [usually black] background.

About 60 of Kawara’s "date paintings," join thousands of postcards and telegrams, and ten thick hardcover yearbooks in the retrospective "On Kawara - Whole and Parts 1964 - 1995," now on at the Tokyo Museum of Contemporary Art.

Kawara travels extensively, and the postcards from his series "I Got up at" fill a half-dozen 3x1.2m display cases. On the back of each of the tourist-typical picture-postcards, Kawara has rubber-stamped the date and "I got up at [for example] 9.39 AM".

If you look long enough through the fading, nostalgia-tinged postcards, you’ll probably find familiar locations that bring you back in time. If you look long enough, you’ll discover days when Kawara got up late, and that may trigger curiosity - what was the artist up to the night before?

Probably painting.

"Title [1965] is one of the few works in which Kawara improvises on his motif. The three-canvas installation features the year - "1965" - flanked by panels reading, on the left, "One Thing," and on the right, "Vietnam." There are also tiny silver stars pasted in the corners of each canvas. A characteristic of Minimal Art exhibitions is that a work in which the artist deviates is aggrandized - consequently "Title" can seem a deep political statement - relative to the foil of repitition that surrounds it.

A similar dramatic effect is produced by the infrequent white-on-red or white-on-blue date paintings that dot the MoT walls. If you look long enough, subtle shade and punctuation variations can also be detected in the works.

If you look long enough...

But why should anyone care to look at paintings that consist of stenciled numbers, letters and punctuation marks? And why is Kawara is one of a handful of Japanese artists to have won widespread international recognition?

One of the qualities Western critics respect about the artist is his dedication, the continuity of his work. The phrase "Zen-like" is tossed about - as it is in discussion regarding much of the simply enigmatic Japanese art of the late 20th C.

Kawara’s perfect little paintings nicely fill out a museum’s post-Pop collection, as an anchor of aesthetic austerity, a reference point in time, something disciplined - and isn’t discipline what detractors claim is missing in the art of the last thirty years?

Besides, museum visitors still need something toward which they can repeat the question: "But is it art?"

Meanwhile, once-avant-garde Kawara has turned blue-chip, and as he continues counting time, he is now also counting plenty of money.

Tick-tock. What a concept.

Notes: until Apr 5, 1998 (5245-4111).
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