On Kawara is one of the most enigmatic of modern artists. Like his forerunner Marcel Duchamp, Kawara retreated from the art scene, avoiding his own exhibition openings and declining to be interviewed, so that his public persona came to be defined solely through his work. But that work itself seems – at first sight – to offer little more reward to biographers. Instead, it methodically and meticulously documents the trajectory of On’s life, without apparent ornament, an art based on ideas rather than aesthetics which sits firmly within the tradition of Conceptual art associated with Joseph Kosuth and Lawrence Weiner. However, the extraordinary duration of Kawara’s process-based projects – one of which, his date-painting series Today, lasted almost fifty years, producing almost 3,000 individual works – and the meditative consistency with which he applied himself to his tasks, sets his oeuvre apart, and links his work to his background in Buddhist and Shinto philosophy. By drawing attention to the minutiae of daily existence, Kawara’s work focuses our attention on the most basic elements of our experience of the world: our location on the planet, and our passage through time.
With projects such as I Got Up and I Am Still Alive – which involved mailing postcards and telegrams to friends and benefactors, at irregular intervals, over several years – On Kawara not only abandoned the artisanal techniques that still defined modern art to some extent in the early 1960s, but, more importantly, outsourced the ‘completion’ of his work to anonymous third parties. In leaving the delivery of his telegrams and postcards, for example – in a sense the final stage of the creative process – to the US postal service and Western Union delivery schedules, On Kawara emphasized the significance of concept over aesthetic form in a far more radical way than modern artists had previously attempted, in line with the most radical tendencies of Conceptual art. For On Kawara contemporaries in Conceptual art please find a nice series of Art & Project publications at www.ftn-books.com