On Kawara dies at 81; artist’s works addressed passage of time


On Kawara, the acclaimed but enigmatic Japanese artist whose body of conceptual works addressed the passage of time in detached, numerical ways, has died. He was 81.

Kawara died in New York City in late June, according to his representatives at the David Zwirner Gallery, which announced his death on its website. The artist had lived in New York for five decades; no cause of death was given.

An intensely private man, Kawara avoided interviews and seldom had his picture taken. He wanted his art to speak for itself, preferring not to attend his own openings and resisting others’ attempts to explain his intentions to the public.


Widely exhibited during his life, Kawara was featured in shows at major museums and galleries around the world, including the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles in 1995 and a solo show at the Otis Art Institute Gallery in 1977. In February, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York will mount a major show on the artist.

Time is the dominant motif in Kawara’s work, and he explored the subject in diaristic and numerically obsessive ways.

“Today” remains his most famous work — a series of monochromatic paintings that impassively documents the dates of their creation. Each painting bears a single date in the language and format of the country where they were created. (The artist made each canvas in a 24-hour period.) His first “date” painting was made Jan. 4, 1966, and the series now comprises thousands of individual paintings.

“One Million Years” was one of his most ambitious projects, consisting in part of individuals reading a long list of dates spanning 1 million years into the past and the future. The piece has been performed at museums and galleries in the U.S. and Europe.

Another time-centric piece was “I Got Up,” which documented on postcards the times the artist arose from bed on days between 1968 and 1979.

Critics have tended to categorize Kawara with conceptual artists like Joseph Kosuth and Lawrence Weiner, both of whom frequently incorporated text into their creations.


Some have also read Zen and other Buddhistic meanings into his work. But interpretation of his art has remained difficult given Kawara’s virtually non-existent public persona.

A Times review of a Kawara show at the Stuart Regen Gallery in L.A. in 1991 described the artist’s works as “stubborn in their enigma, using but refusing to co-opt whatever information the viewer chooses to bring to them.”

Born in 1932 in Japan, Kawara grew up in the tumult of World War II.

As a young man, he moved to Tokyo where he started exhibiting his work, but his career in his native country was brief. He moved to Mexico City in 1959 and eventually made New York his home.

Kawara’s first New York show was in 1976 at the Sperone Westwater Fischer Gallery, which is now called Sperone Westwater.

His 1977 solo exhibition at the Otis was described in a Times review as “strictly impersonal. There is neither confession nor emotion in his work, and aside from mortality, he reveals nothing that the most discreet citizen would choose to keep hidden.”

Though he was press-phobic, Kawara wasn’t entirely a recluse as far as friends and colleagues were concerned. One of his long-running projects was a series of telegrams sent to associates that bore a single line: “I am still alive.”

Among his biggest U.S. shows was a solo exhibition at the Dallas Museum of Art in 2008 and the year-long “One Thousand Days, One Million Years” at the Dia Center for the Arts in New York in 1993.

The upcoming Guggenheim exhibition, which was organized with the cooperation of the artist, will be the most expansive U.S. show devoted to Kawara to date, showcasing works as far back as 1964 and including a continuous, live reading of “One Million Years.”

Another posthumous exhibition is being planned for 2015 at the Museum Dhondt-Dhaenens in Deurle, Belgium.

Although his exhibitions included few biographical details, Kawara would almost always find a way to mention the number of days he had been alive. For the Otis exhibition in 1977, the catalog noted that the artist had lived 16,378 days at the opening.

According to his gallery, Kawara had lived 29,771 days at the time of his death.

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