On Kawara: Just in Time



Kawara Has Not Dated


Who would have thought that On Kawara would now look like a major artist? His work has a certain Dada purity. One of the things Kawara does, has done, and continues to do – since Jan. 4, 1966 — is paint the date wherever he is, in white on a monochromatic ground. Of course, it gets more complicated. The date is not painted every single day. Furthermore, some days he paints the date two or three times. I assume that whoever buys a date painting is informed if his or her proud possession is singular or not. Does a “bachelor” date cost more than a one-of-three? Can some collector commission a particular date? Somehow I doubt it.


Because of Kawara’s strict subject matter and long-term commitment, questions like these can loom. And, by the way, what is the difference between focus and commitment, and then between commitment and obsession?


Offhand, I would say focus is fine; obsessiveness, unless you are talking about an Outsider artist, is generally seen as negative, right? On some days, I would reverse the terms. And commitment? Commitment, at the risk of being Existentialist and/or political, is probably perfect, at least for Kawara.


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My inspiration for what follows is “On Kawara – One Million Years” now at David Zwirner (525 W. 19th St.) until Feb. 14. No “paintings” are on view. All you will see are two cases displaying books of dates, a freestanding recording booth, recording paraphernalia, and the “product” being created before your very eyes – or rather ears: a row of CDs. Volunteers inside the booth read dates; outside the booth a technician takes care of the technicalities.


“It is believed that 2,700 CDs will be needed to complete the readings of One Million Years [Past] and One Million Years [Future],” or so saith the press release, which also tuned me into Kawara’s Pure Consciousness: seven date paintings (JAN. 1 – JAN. 7, 1997) “exhibited in kindergarten classrooms around the world.”





The Paintings, the Brand


Although Kawara works in several serial formats, there is still the branding issue.  Kawara has claimed dates and, in terms of art, he “owns” them. He also has rights to his elegant way of presenting the dates as paintings. And as sound pieces.


When does a subject or a style become a logo? Or, forgive me, a brand? Is “branding” bad? Picasso, throughout his many style shifts, always had his hand as a brand. Duchamp branded his own marriage of the mystical, the intellectual and the droll, whereas Picabia branded change itself, perhaps to his own detriment. We remember all too well when Magritte almost sank his own ship when he went temporarily mad and tried to become a latter-day Impressionist.


Let’s face it, art is a trap, at least when it becomes a career. Are there any alternatives? Art as a calling? Art as philosophical or spiritual investigation? Art as a vehicle of self-transformation?


In terms of the infamous – but now classic – “paintings”, Kawara always uses the most ordinary looking numerals possible or, according to some accounts, the most typical typography in force wherever he is. It could be New York, Paris, Berlin. Or wherever.


He is not doing an Ed Ruscha attempt at wit or graphic-design trope. If anything, Kawara is anti-design, which is why he is sometimes thought of as a Minimalist.  Or is he a Conceptualist? If the latter, why does he bother hand-painting his dates?


Furthermore, according to curator Lynne Cooke’s brief (upon the occasion of “One Thousand Days, One Million Years,” 1993, at Dia):


When not on view each painting is housed in a handmade cardboard box which  also contains a clipping from a local newspaper from the city in which the artist was resident on that date. Mostly, the title for a work is derived from either a headline or a caption found on the accompanying newspaper clipping. 


I do not remember seeing titles derived from newspaper clippings – but Artopia can’t be everywhere at once. Also, just think what different works these would be if the clippings were always shown with the paintings? Probably not a good idea. But please, show us one such matchup and a handmade cardboard box. Viewers have a right to know.











Although these juicy bits of information add some grounding to the paintings, what could be more ordinary than the date? Kawara claims his subject is consciousness. But isn’t that the real subject of all art? Isn’t that a bit grand? Whereas, time…well, time is more down to earth.


mayan small.jpg

All the Time in the World


What is the date? Every day it changes, but it is always the date. You read it, but you don’t see it. It is quotidian. It is cosmic. The next day the signifier of the previous day is always out of date. But is the date a marker that stands for time? Or because it changes so precisely — every 24 hours, all at once at midnight, and not by degrees — is it somehow timeless? Could we have a date begin at dawn instead? Or at noon? Or at 3:26 p.m.?


Once you get the idea that dates and calendars are simple-minded, socially generated constructs – even those based upon astronomy — you may become more disoriented then you want to be. Time is slippery.


The Chinese calendar, the Hebrew calendar, the Islamic calendar, and the much newer Hindu (Indian) calendar do not match up to the European (Gregorian) calendar that the Japanese-born Kawara, as far as I know, has always embraced, at least since living in the United States. “Other” calendars have different starting points in terms of year 1 (or in the three Mayan calendars, year 0), but most in one way or another try to factor in the lunar.


Should the Artopia calendar be strictly lunar?


I have long included the constantly updated image of the phase of the moon on my computer sidebar in case I decide to go sailing, surfing, clam-digging, or deep-sea fishing (or marauding), thinking this was a good way to keep track of tides. Wrong again. Tidal “predictions” involve calculations of moonrise and sunrise and, I think, local conditions and topography. So forget the moon. I now have a shortcut to a local-tides chart and am seriously contemplating investing in an analog surfer-clock for my sidebar.


And along with other synodic-cycle calendars, we can also forget an Artopia calendar based on the appearance of Venus over Long Island — although I love the idea of a calendar based upon the evening star. Synodic cycles are determined by the time it takes for a celestial object to reappear at the same point in the sky relative to the sun as observed from earth.


The Artopia calendar is as complicated as the Mayan. The Mayans – who really did invent zero – used three calendars simultaneously. One was an agricultural calendar of 365 days, with 18 months and five extra days. Another, the sacred calendar of 260 days. There were 13-day weeks and 20-day weeks.


Needless to say there are various art-world calendars that also must be coordinated and integrated. Is it any longer the case that the art season begins on Labor Day and ends July 4? Art is virtually global. Art never sleeps.


Here is today’s Artopian posting date using various calendars:


Gregorian (New Style) 2009-01-26 (Mon., Jan. 26, 2009)
Ordinal Calendar 2009-026
Week Date (ISO commercial calendar) 2009-W05-1
Julian (Old Style) 2009-01-13 (Mon. Jan.13,2009)
Islamic (Moslem) 1430-01-29 (Muharram 29, 1430)
Hebrew (Jewish) 5769-11-01 (Shevat 1, 5769)
Mayan Long Count
Mayan Haab –15-18 (18 Muan)
Mayan Tzolkin –15-9 (9 Men)
French Revolutionary 0217-05-07 (De’cade II Septidi Pluvio^se 217)
Old Hindu Solar 5109-10-12 (Makara 12, 5109)
Old Hindu Lunar 5109-11-01 (Magha 1, 5109)
Achelis World Calendar 2009-01-26 (Thursday, January 26, 2009)
Coptic 1725-05-18 (Tubah 18, 1725)
Ethiopian 2001-05-18 (Ter 18, 2001)
Jalaali 1387-11-07 (Bahman 7, 1387)
Japanese Traditional “Kyureki” with CE 2009-01-01 (Senkachi, Mutsuki 1, 2009)
chronological Julian day number (JD) 2454858
chronological modified Julian day number (MJD) 54857
Lilian day number (LDN) 155698




Here are fully operative calendar converters (and explanations!) http://www.fourmilab.ch/documents/calendar/


Once you become aware of the multiple “objective” calendars now in force worldwide, it is not so shocking that Prime Minister Nehru had a reason for backing Elizabeth Achelis’s looney World Calendar. India needed one calendar.  In 1953, there were at least 30 different calendars being used in his country, the residue of clans, castes, principalities, and long-gone conquerors, fledgling nations, and even city-states. Each calendar was sacred, making any kind of industrial or social coordination nearly impossible. 



One Calendar, One World? 

What is obsessive-compulsive Achelis’s World Calendar? It allows Christmas, your birthday, or whatever to fall on the same day every year through the judicious use of intercalary or “leap” days. And what benefit is this? Well, to begin with you can use the same calendar every year. Saves paper and trees. Why was its use defeated at the U.N.? Religionists opined that the required intercalary days interfered with the strict observance of a Sabbath every seven days as decreed by the Bible and the Qur’an.


In any case, now that we are digitally global, shouldn’t we all be on Greenwich Mean Time? Railway Standard was started in 1840 so the Brits could coordinate their trains. The U.S. did not have a standardized time until noon, Nov. 18, 1883, but even so there were holdouts. Detroit, for instance, kept its local time until 1900. 


But using British Mean Time or Railway Standard or the computer time called Unix — counting seconds since noon Jan. 1, 1970 UTC (Coordinated Universal Time),  how can I know when it is morning in Moscow, or Sydney; or lunchtime in Prague? Uh-oh. More coordination required!


But need we limit ourselves, like On Kawara, to Western Time – i.e., Pope Gregory’s calendar of 1582? The truth of it is that if we can agree upon one calendar for all to coordinate what apparently needs to be synchronized — elections, balls, train schedules, dinner parties, beach dates, invasions of Middle Eastern countries — we can then simultaneously, but totally consciously and perhaps playfully, employ as many different calendars as we fancy: days can change at noon instead of midnight, years can start with the first Artopia entry or the Founder’s Birthday, weeks can be ten days or five, or can alternate;  months can be of any length — April twice as long as December, for instance. 


The personal and largely unconscious calendars and time systems we carry around in our heads may then see the light of day: curtain time, Oscar time, World Series time, play time, down time, Swing Time, lunchtime, dream time, time off for good behavior.


And then we can begin counting backwards, as at a liftoff. There’s always the Big Countdown, but let’s not go there.






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