02/17/2015 04:13 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

An Existence: On Kawara -- Silence at the Guggenheim

On Kawara, Telegram to Sol LeWitt, February 5, 1970, From I Am Still Alive, 1970-2000. LeWitt Collection, Chester, Connecticut.

February 6, 2015. This date marks the opening of the exhibition On Kawara--Silence, at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, the first comprehensive retrospective of the artist's work from 1963 to 2013. The exhibition will remain on view until May 3, 2015.

APR - 1 1969, From I Got Up, 1968-79. MTM Collection, Japan.

On Kawara lived 29,771 days, and painted well over 3,000 monochromatic canvases, each bearing the inscription of the date it was painted. For twelve years, he traced his movements on city maps, recorded his rising time each day and listed the name of every person he spoke with on any given day. He sent over a hundred telegrams bearing the message: "I AM STILL ALIVE."

JUN 10 1975, From I Got Up, 1968-79. Collection of Keiji and Sawako Usami.

For an artist whose corpus of work is comprised almost exclusively of record keeping, we know next to nothing about On Kawara himself. What we are presented with is raw data with very little context. From his methodical records, we know what time he woke up each day, but we don't know the circumstances, why some days he popped out of bed at 6am and other times he slept until 6pm. Based on the return addresses of some of his postcards, we can surmise that he had a preference for Holiday Inns while traveling within the United States, but beyond that we know nothing. Kawara was famously reticent, refusing interviews and photographs and in the end not even attending his own exhibition openings. His work consistently locates the artist in space and time, but he otherwise remains silent. This silence serves to draw all focus to the work itself, rather than on the man who made it. His work is not about his experience, rather about his very existence.

I Went, 1968-79. Collection of the artist.

One wants to imagine Kawara, monkish, toiling over his canvases while outside the world raged: the Vietnam War, Watergate, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of the World Trade Center towers, countercultural revolutions, riots, genocides. As a teenager, Kawara was living in Tokyo when the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Kawara was certainly no stranger to the horrors of modern life, to death and suffering and indeed his earliest paintings, for which he gained recognition in Tokyo in the 1950s, depicted surrealistic deformed and maimed bodies, a style he would subsequently abandon. From January 4, 1966, Kawara devoted himself instead to the practice of obsessively recording the passage of time.

One Million Years, 1993-, Live Reading: One Million Years, David Zwirner, New York, January 14-February 14, 2009. Photo: Courtesy David Zwirner, New York/London.

His Date Paintings, of which over 150 are on view at the Guggenheim, represent his most well-known body of work. Each painting, executed according to strict self-imposed rules, depicts a date painted in sans serif lettering in white acrylic paint against a monochrome ground of black, grey, blue, sometimes red. The date's format followed the custom and language of the place where it was painted. If a painting was not completed by midnight of that date, it was destroyed. This time-based practice finds a perfect home in the ascendant spiral of the Guggenheim's Frank Lloyd Wright-designed rotunda. A series of these consecutive paintings, from a three-month period in 1970, was first exhibited as part of the Guggenheim International exhibition in 1971, and now, collectively titled Everyday Meditation by the artist on the occasion of this retrospective, returns to the Guggenheim; these 97 paintings represent the longest uninterrupted sequence of Date Paintings Kawara made. Each painting is accompanied by a hand-made box, into which he inserted a newspaper clipping from the day's newspaper.

Paris-New York Drawing no. 144, 1964. Collection of the artist, Photo: Courtesy David Zwirner, New York/London.

Eventually he would forego the practice of including newspaper cuttings, finding that the specificity of the day's news distracted from the overall intention of the project. No matter how arbitrary the chosen clipping, the viewer's recollection of bombings and trash strikes, obituaries and classifieds, would color his interpretation of the painting. Removing contextual information disallows the mind's wandering, brings focus again to the object of meditation: the inevitable, continuous passage of time.

Title, 1965. National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C., Patrons' Permanent Fund.

While Kawara was not known to elaborate at length on the meaning of his life's work, he did however identify one central tenet: the notion of consciousness, brought about by a higher awareness of one's self or existence in the world. In meditation, one focuses awareness on the continual, cyclical intake and expiration of breath as a means to know the present moment, as it appears and swiftly vanishes into the past. Kawara said of his Date Paintings that they represent a paradox: forever signifying the present moment, while always belonging to the past. His practice exemplifies the notion of momentariness: in Sanskrit, kshana bhanga, or "as the moment breaks." In Japanese this feeling is known as setsuna metsu, the sense of time--continuously, persistently, inalterably--passing away, moment by moment, millisecond by millisecond.

DEC. 29, 1977, "Thursday." New York, From Today, 1966-2013. Private collection, Photo: Courtesy David Zwirner, New York/London.

Within every Date Painting, every notation of the hour and minute he awoke, every exhortation of "I AM STILL ALIVE," there is an acknowledgement of the inevitability of death. His One Hundred Years Calendar (2004) shows his lifespan against the template of a century's days--the Fate's thread as it is measured. At one point he sent a telegram to curator Michel Claura, "I AM NOT GOING TO COMMIT SUICIDE DON'T WORRY."

JAN. 4, 1966, "New York's traffic strike." New York, From Today, 1966-2013. Private collection, Photo: Courtesy David Zwirner, New York/London.

But Kawara's work is not fatalistic, nor is it explicitly confined to his own lifetime. On Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays at the Guggenheim, volunteers will read from the volumes One Million Years: Past and One Million Years: Future, which chronicle the years stretching one million years in one direction or the other, from 1971 ("For all those who have lived and died") and from 1998 ("For the last one"). Since its first reading in 1993 at the Dia Center for the Arts in New York, recitations of One Million Years have taken place at various exhibition spaces around the world, with each subsequent reading picking up where the previous one left off. So as you ascend the spiraling ramps of the Guggenheim's rotunda, listening to the steady enunciation of years from 816,998 BC or 2,014,781 AD (where the Guggenheim's readings will begin, respectively), consider Kawara's work in terms of a life lived, while considering your own existence, right here, in the present moment.

MAY 20, 1981, "Wednesday." New York, From Today, 1966-2013. Private collection, Photo: Courtesy David Zwirner, New York/London.

--Natalie Hegert