On Kawara: Time and Life as Art

On Karawa always wanted to see his work on the timeless, spiritual spiral ramps of the Guggenheim and got his wish. Photo by David Heald

On Karawa always wanted to see his work on the Guggenheim’s timeless, spiritual spiral ramps. Photo by David Heald

Back in the 1970s, you couldn’t find a language-art or Conceptual art exhibition without the enigmatic world traveler On Kawara. Sometimes you would see canvases with a single day’s date, but other times you might encounter a single telegram sent from a major world city with simply the message: “I am still alive.”

The Guggenheim is paying tribute to this favorite through the weekend in its show On Kawara – Silence, and has done a magnificent job of displaying and interpreting the life work of an artist who always appeared barely there. Although he was fully immersed in the New York art scene, he seemed always to be on the go, traveling to some other major world capital. He managed to make art out of this peripatetic life.

Visitors peruse On Karawa’s Today series paintings and peer into their newspaper-lined storage boxes below. Photo by David Heald

Visitors peruse On Karawa’s Today series paintings and peer into their newspaper-lined storage boxes below. Photo by David Heald

Indeed, at one point in his early life he thought he might like to be a travel agent, but an immersion in the ancient cave paintings of Altamira changed that. He decided to dedicate himself to art and set upon a unique course.

At the start of the walk up the spiral ramp, you encounter his Today series – a continuous set of rectangle canvases, painted each day with the day’s date, beginning with January 1, 1970. Over the next four decades, he would create more than 3,000 of these. In a twist, the Guggenheim displays many with its associated storage box that the artist assembled each day when he was done, lined with the newspaper from the same day.

From the I Got Up postcard series. Photo by David Heald

From the I Got Up postcard series. Photo by David Heald

Although the artist never intended the paintings to be shown with the storage boxes, the throngs of visitors have quite a time looking at the date and then peering down to see what else was happening in the world that day – for example, Golda Meir’s proclamations about Israeli-Egyptian standoffs, desegregation in the South, the Chicago Seven trial, and Vincent Canby reviews.

It’s stunning to see the assemblage of tourist postcards that he sent at the rate of two per day to friends and colleagues with the stamped inscription I Got Up Today with a time stamp of his rising. Travel and personal routine systematized and packaged into a series of projects he carried out from 1968 through 1979.

He didn’t want the moments or people to pass as he journeyed throughout the world, so he began the series I Met. He noted every single person he met every day for twelve years – friends, artists, waiters, store clerks – and typed their names on pieces of paper that were time-stamped and bound into books.

Viewers peruse a fraction of the 1,800 postcards that On Kawara sent to document the time he got up at various cities in his travels. Photo by David Heald

Viewers peruse a fraction of the 8,000 postcards that On Kawara sent to document the time he got up at various cities in his travels. Photo by David Heald

It’s amazing to encounter the bound volumes on the ramp, visitors circling the extensive set wondering what it must have been like to carry out this level of life documentation.

The curators explain more in the video below about how On Kawara took on monumental projects to translate his day-to-day life, travels, and schedule into the art that fills this meditative, peaceful, and mind-expanding show:

See more views of this thought-provoking installation here. For more curator videos, click here.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s