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Conceptual Artist On Kawara Dead at 81

by Hrag Vartanian on July 10, 2014

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(GIF Hrag Vartanian/Hyperallergic)

The David Zwirner gallery has confirmed Japanese conceptual artist On Kawara has passed away.

Best-known for his Today series, the New York-based artist created his signature “date paintings” all around the world, conforming to local dating conventions and languages based on his location. When the artist created one of the painting in a country with a non-Latin alphabet, he would use Esperanto.

Phaidon has more details about the important date works:

New York occupies a central importance within the Today Series as the city where the first date painting was made (“January 4, 1966″) and where the majority of the works have been executed. It also marks the location of three significant paintings produced on the days surrounding the first manned moon landing in July 1969 (“July 16, 1969″; “July 20, 1969″; and “July 21, 1969″); each presents the largest canvas size Kawarau has used for the date paintings (61 x 89 inches). Each of his paintings, when not on display, is encased in a handmade cardboard box. On certain days, a newspaper clipping from the city in which the painting is executed is selected and used to line the interior of the box. The actual newspaper clippings accompanying the ‘moon’ works are exhibited alongside the paintings and offer a narrative component, with the headline of one reading “Man walks on moon.”

Kawara invents rules or self-imposed limits for his work. There are four or five coats of the same brand of paint on each canvas. The lettering is hand-painted. It is always white and occupies pretty much the same place on each canvas, though the canvases are not always the same size or colour.

During his life, the artist refused to give interviews or talk about his work.

A major retrospective of his work, Silence, is slated to open at Manhattan’s Guggenheim Museum in February 2015. The exhibition will be the first full representation of Kawara’s art, beginning in 1964 and including every category of work.

In his book Kant After Duchamp, Thierry de Duve provides a context for Kawara’s work in 20th-century art history (emphasis mine):

From surrealism to conceptual art, half of the avant-garde played a game on the definition of art in general. (The other half, which is often called modernism, apparently played a different game, confining itself within the specific boundaries of painting and sculpture.) While Meret Oppenheim cloaked a cup and its saucer in fur and Magritte put a painting representing a piece of Brie under a cheese-cover, the surrealists as a group out up a show where myriads of “objets sauvages,” redubbed “objets surrealistes,” claimed their newly conquered art-status. Later, Yves Klein exhibition the “Void” and Arman the “Full,” while Manzaoni sold can of “Artist’s Shit” and balloons of “Artist’s Breath.” Warhol produced fake “Brillo Boxes” while Judd and Morris produced boxes. Rauschenburg sent his gallerist, Iris Clert, a telegram stating “This is a portrait of Iris Clert if I say so,” and a few years later On Kawara send his gallerist, Yvon Lambert, a telegram stating “I am still alive.” And by the time Ian Wilson could carry on conversations about art and call them art, Robert Barry was able to invite his audience to an (imaginary) round-the-world hopping from one gallery to the next, only to discover that the promised show was to be held the next month in the next gallery. In each of these pieces, subtle humor and deliberate provocation mingled to raise the question of the conditions under which any given thing could be called art.

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