10 Things You Didn’t Know About ‘On Kawara’

If you are a fan of contemporary art, then you surely must have heard of the renowned Japanese artist On Kawara. Known for his unique conceptual works, Kawara left an indelible mark on the art world during his lifetime. While many may be familiar with his iconic series titled “Date Paintings” and his meticulous focus on time, there are several lesser-known aspects of his life and work that are equally fascinating. In this article, we present to you 10 things you didn’t know about On Kawara.

1. Multilingual Artwork

While On Kawara was born and raised in Japan, his exploration of geographical boundaries is evident in his artwork as well. Fluent in several languages, including English, Spanish, and French, Kawara created artworks that spanned multiple cultures and linguistic contexts. His engagement with different languages allowed him to transcend barriers and connect with a wider audience.

Moreover, Kawara often incorporated the usage of multiple languages within his artwork, emphasizing the universal nature of human experiences and the power of communication beyond linguistic constraints. This multilingual approach further enhanced the depth and richness of his conceptual pieces.

2. Art as a Record of Time

One of On Kawara’s most famous series is the “Date Paintings.” Spanning from 1966 to his death in 2014, this series consists of thousands of canvases with the sole purpose of documenting the passing of time. Each painting features the date on which it was created, meticulously inscribed in Sans Serif letters.

Interestingly, Kawara strictly adhered to a specific set of rules while creating these paintings. If he failed to complete a painting on the same day it represented, he would destroy it. The “Date Paintings” serve as a visual record of Kawara’s existence and dedication to precision, highlighting the transient nature of human life and the inevitability of time’s passage.

3. The “I AM STILL ALIVE” Telegrams

Delving into the realm of performance art, On Kawara sent “I AM STILL ALIVE” telegrams to his friends, colleagues, and contacts around the world. Initiated in 1970, these telegrams were sent to various individuals at varying intervals, usually accompanied by a postmark indicating the exact time of dispatch.

The “I AM STILL ALIVE” telegrams were a means for Kawara to assert his existence in the world, offering a personal touch to his conceptual works. By sending these telegrams, he transformed his art into a participatory experience, urging the recipients to contemplate their own mortality and the fleeting nature of human life.

4. Skipping Exhibitions

Despite being a prominent figure in the art world, On Kawara intentionally skipped numerous gallery openings and events featuring his own work. This deliberate absence was his way of highlighting the ephemeral nature of art itself and questioning the significance of physical presence in the interpretation and appreciation of artworks.

By refusing to attend his own exhibitions, Kawara challenged the traditional notions of artist-authority and the necessity of the artist’s direct presence for the artwork to be experienced and understood. His absence served as a powerful statement, embodying the core principles of his conceptual practice.

5. Travels across the Globe

Throughout his career, On Kawara embarked on numerous international travels, taking him to various countries and continents. His nomadic lifestyle allowed him to explore an array of different cultures and experiences, which undoubtedly influenced his artistic practice.

Kawara’s travels expanded his worldview, fostering an appreciation for the universality of human experiences and the interconnectedness of global societies. These journeys shaped his artistic approach, injecting a cross-cultural perspective into his conceptual works and reaffirming the autonomy of art in transcending national boundaries.

6. The “I Got Up” Postcards

In addition to the “Date Paintings,” On Kawara engaged in another daily ritual called the “I Got Up” series. Between 1968 and 1979, he sent more than a thousand postcards to his friends and associates, each bearing the simple message: “I Got Up at” followed by the exact time he woke up that day.

This ongoing series, similar to the “Date Paintings” series, exemplified Kawara’s commitment to capturing the passage of time and documenting his daily existence. By sharing this intimate ritual with others, he explored the boundaries between public and private, questioning the role of personal information in the construction of identity.

7. Silence and the Written Word

Silence played a profound role in On Kawara’s artistic practice. Through his work, he explored the power and impact of silence, both in the written word and in the absence of verbal communication. Kawara often used language and text as a means to convey his ideas, relying on the written word to create powerful artistic statements.

By incorporating silence and text, Kawara encouraged viewers to engage with his art on a deeper level, urging them to contemplate the meaning and significance of language itself. Through this exploration, he highlighted the inherent limitations of language and the potential for silence to convey profound messages.

8. The “Pure Consciousness” Series

While On Kawara is most commonly associated with his “Date Paintings,” he also delved into other series throughout his career. One such series is the “Pure Consciousness” series, consisting of a collection of 24 paintings created between 1968 and 1979.

The “Pure Consciousness” paintings were created by brushing layers of monochromatic paint onto the canvas and then removing it with a dry cloth, leaving behind subtle traces of color. Through these paintings, Kawara explored the ethereal nature of consciousness and the fleeting moments of introspection that define the human experience.

9. Encrypting Personal Information

Kawara was known for his meticulous attention to detail and his desire to control the information shared about his personal life. He intentionally encrypted his personal details, ensuring that minimal personal information was publicly available.

By encrypting his personal information, Kawara invited the viewer to focus solely on his artworks and the ideas they conveyed. This deliberate separation of the artist from his personal life emphasized the autonomy of the artwork and the importance of engaging with it on its own terms.

10. Influence on Contemporary Artists

On Kawara’s groundbreaking approach to art left a lasting impact on numerous contemporary artists. His rigorous dedication to conceptual practices and his exploration of time, language, and personal existence continue to inspire and influence artists around the world.

Artists such as Christine Sun Kim, Tino Sehgal, and Hito Steyerl have drawn inspiration from Kawara’s work, employing similar conceptual frameworks in their own artistic endeavors. His legacy as an influential figure in the realm of contemporary art remains strong, ensuring that his ideas and philosophies will continue to shape the artistic landscape for years to come.


For more information on On Kawara and his intriguing conceptual artworks, you may visit the following links: