While scanning headlines featured on online news sites the other day (my rather meager attempt at being more "worldly"), I came across an image that made me pause my scrolling and ponder. I recognized what was depicted in it, or rather, I'd seen a variation of it somewhere before. The photograph was of a painting: a canvas painted solid black with a date prominently stamped across the middle of it in white. A bit of brain-wracking provided me with the realization that I had seen such a work in person; I had seen it on display at the Art Institute while visiting Chicago to tour colleges as a high school senior. I remembered being intrigued by the seemingly simplistic painting, as well as being rather confused by the brief description with which the wall placard next to the work had provided me. Now thoroughly intrigued, I clicked the link and not only satisfied my own curiosity, but discovered that the artist behind the work is someone who I deem to be a Creative Individual.
Oct. 31, 1978
Art Institute of Chicago
On Kawara is a world-renowned artist whose collective works have been auctioned for millions and are featured around the world. The now 79-year-old artist moved to New York City from Japan just before beginning a series of self-portraits on Jan. 4, 1996. Yet here his biography stops. Since starting this series, he has refused all interviews, public appearances, and photographs. He does not exist outside of his featured works, and he intends to keep things that way.
How, then, is it possible for him to have a series of self-portraits? You see, these self-portraits are rather abstract ones. They are all variations of the painting I remarked on above: a canvas painted a solid color with a date featured across its center. The date represents when the painting was created, and it is written in the language of the place where it was created. Each painting is finished before midnight on that date, or else it is destroyed. The front page of a newspaper for that date is included along with each work. The sizes of the paintings vary, a fact attributed to both practicality (such as when Kawara would be painting while abroad in a hotel) and significance (the paintings done when the Apollo 11 mission took off measure 5'x7').
The series is called "Today," and Kawara plans to continue it until his death. These works serve as self-portraits because Kawara is incredibly present in them, and they reveal things about him that a list of biological facts could not. Each work is meticulously painted, with the date being painted without stencils in a typeface of Kawara's own creation. It is his "signature," in a sense. This series is a testament to his continued presence in the world. The paintings tell us where he was on many days of his life and what it was that he was doing with those days. "They're a witness to being alive, each day," says Lynne Cooke, one out of the handful of curators and dealers who have gotten to know Kawara. Kawara is adamant about letting his work stand for everything he is, believing that any information he might provide about himself or his art would affect and get in the way of viewers' contemplation of his works. Kawara prefers those who view his works to contemplate the idea of a specific date, the passage and marking of time, and what it means to exist each day. His other pieces and series of works promote this same message. He has a series entitled "I Got Up," in which he sent postcards from his present location, noting the time he awoke that day. He also sent a series of telegrams to various people bearing only the message "I AM STILL ALIVE" and his name.
Kawara challenges the approach to studying creative individuals we've been applying in class, as the only information provided about him as an individual is what can be inferred about him through his works. We know nothing about his upbringing, personality, motivations, cognitive processes while creating, or feelings toward the field in which he operates. Yet the absence of this information makes his presence in his work all the more prominent, as that's all there is of him. By making his identity indistinguishable from his works, Kawara provides his audiences with a novel way of thinking about what it means to contemplate and affirm being alive TODAY.