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As my entry into the art world took place just a few years after the Museum of Modern Art’s 1970 Information show, I’ve grown increasingly conscious of an unexpected turn in the positions of several hard-line members of the once aggressively anti-aesthetic conceptual camp. In the decades following that seminal exhibition, Sol LeWitt’s wall drawings have evolved from cold, philosophical diagrams into beautifully crafted murals fabricated by artisans who painstakingly execute his color-saturated designs to the accolades of a gushing public. Fellow Information radical, Vito Acconci, whose contribution to the 1970 show consisted of having his mail routed to the museum, has since established Acconci Studio, a successful and fully staffed design firm responsible for major and aesthetically significant public art projects worldwide. In witnessing these and other similar transformations, I’ve struggled with the question of how a conceptual artist could abandon an antithetical attitude toward visual nuance, embrace a full-blown aesthetic, and still retain credibility in light of his earlier work.
The question was very much on my mind as I entered On Kawara—Silence, the exhibition currently filling the Guggenheim Museum rotunda. As another veteran of the Information show, I wondered if he too had succumbed to the pull of aesthetics, to the magnetism of whatever personal sensibility likely brought him to visual art in the first place. Though clearly one of the more disciplined of the group, On Kawara, in the fullness of this museum retrospective, reveals that his work has always had an aesthetic component — an aesthetic of manners, consideration, and distant formality.
Interspersed with extended refrains of the better-known Today paintings, the installation features representative examples of parallel projects the artist developed throughout his life. These include a series of postcards and telegrams sent to friends and colleagues, framed and hung for the exhibition in those neat grids one expects in a conceptual art exhibition. However, special care was taken with the postcards. Set between plastic panels hung in the aisles, the presentation allows viewers not just an overall sense of the series, but an intimate proximity to individual cards, echoing the experience of the original recipient. Both telegrams and postcards offer the message “I am still alive” or a variation of “I woke up at 11:21am.” There are also tables in the aisles displaying the artist’s plainly designed boxes fabricated to preserve each Today painting for storage. On other tables are martial standings of bound volumes containing the pages of a counting piece I will comment on below.
Though the Guggenheim staff, Jeffrey Weiss, Anne Wheeler, and Rachel Nelson, deserve credit for the exhibition’s coherence, the work itself is persistently on point as the artist holds fast to his preoccupation with a mundane marking of time. Aesthetically, however, it is infused with a sense of purpose that echoes the ancient and universal convention of courtesy — art as gesture; gesture as gift; art presented in deference to an individual encountering it in a silent gallery. I found myself exposed to a feeling of warmth and humility that I had not expected.
Before I get too carried away with this pleasant discovery, I should add that in my view Kawara’s work still suffers from that same banality toward which conceptual artists seem as a group to gravitate. The idea of a painting containing only the date of its creation is, frankly, as dull as dishwater. What saves each from exuding a dumb emptiness is the care taken with every last canvas. The attentiveness applied to what is little more than a calendar fragment is reminiscent of the traditional Japanese tea ceremony, an elaborate aesthetic surrounding an ordinary occurrence. Moreover, allowances made for arbitrary and therefore very human gaps in the sequence — if he was unable to finish a canvas by the end of the day, it was abandoned — lend the series a self-depreciating allure. Apparently, each canvas had to be respectfully presentable.
In an oblique way, the Today series recalls the humility of the Homage to the Square series that Josef Albers also produced over a number of decades. The context that had surrounded, and to some measure distorted, the public reception of the Homage series was due to the histrionic claims of Color Field painting with which these panels were often linked. Assuming instead the unpretentious role of teacher, Albers claimed for the series no greater significance than that offered by a gardener extrapolating for a companion the extraordinary properties of a small herb. The Homage project spoke to the artist’s wish to share with the viewer that sense of wonder that interactive color generates in human perception; that and nothing more. So too with the Today series, in which Kawara offers carefully prepared objects that simply refer back to the consideration taken during their creation. It is his insistence on a visually sensitive approach to each canvas in the series that best expresses his core sensibility.
The postcards are particularly effective in realizing this formal, unassuming gesture. They are unencumbered by hyperbolic self-regard. They are akin to the universal convention of waving to those on shore from a passing boat, a practice that strikes me as deeply and anciently human. Kawara’s postcards share the same disarming and timeless charm as that of the waving tourist’s gesture — intriguingly so, as the artist spent a good deal of his life travelling.
Much of the remaining work he produced between the first Today painting (January 4, 1966) to the last (January 12, 2013) and up to his death in 2014, has to do with cataloguing the paintings on various charts, including printed calendar pages with highlighted sections marking the years of his life. These give an ironic sense of both the importance and the unimportance of the artist’s work in the greater scheme of things. The largest of these projects, “One Million Years Past” and “One Million Years Future,” involve listing years in the millions, carefully typed on thousands of pages and bound in the neat, archivist-like volumes mentioned earlier that in my estimation drown the intimacy of his achievement in a sea of meta-data. Those works allude to an obsession and, by offering a glimpse of the artist as a preoccupied compulsive, destabilize the viewer’s sense of a courteous passerby with a winning manner, leaving the work’s aesthetic curiously challenged.
Moreover, I found the neatly bound volumes containing this data behemoth more than adequate for the unexceptional message they carry, and so I will not attend their scheduled public reading (“… nineteen-hundred and seven, nineteen hundred and eight, nineteen-hundred and nine…”) at any of the sessions to take place three days a week until the end of the show on May 3. Such a forced, mind-numbing performance strikes me as antithetical to a body of work dedicated to a sensitive consideration for strangers.