01.06.12

On Kawara at David Zwirner, a Million-Dollar Enigma

On Kawara soared to international fame with his countless self-portraits, but the world still doesn’t know his face. Blake Gopnik on the Japanese master’s new show at David Zwirner—and how he remains anonymous.

We ought to know On Kawara better than just about any famous artist. Since precisely Jan. 4, 1966, not long after moving to New York from Japan, he’s made his name with a vast series of self-portraits. Most weeks he paints a bunch of them, and for stretches he’s done one every day. Of the thousands of canvases Kawara has painted so far, 165 have just gone on view in the soaring spaces of David Zwirner Gallery in New York. The gallery says the exhibition’s works aren’t for sale, but Kawara’s auction record stands at close to $2 million, such is the size of his reputation.

And here’s what this million-dollar artist leaves us as the daily record of his presence on this earth: a canvas, meticulously hand-painted by Kawara himself, that simply bears the date it was painted. So the very first in the series, done in New York, just featured the bold block letters “JAN. 4, 1966”, painted in a white sans-serif font over a blue ground. In 1991, Kawara registered his presence in Vienna by painting “30.DEZ.1991,” in white on his more usual black. (Kawara abbreviates each date in the language of the place he’s painting it in. When he’s somewhere that doesn’t use the Latin alphabet, such as his native Japan, he writes in Esperanto. If a picture isn’t finished before midnight, he destroys it. At Zwirner, he’s showing 117 canvases painted in various cities he’s visited while doing the usual great-artist rounds, plus 48 canvases painted at home in New York—one or more from every year that he’s been doing them.) Within a short while of starting the series, Kawara had settled on an unassuming typeface of his own design—a kind of signature, you could call it, like the painterly “hand” that marks the maker’s presence in a Rembrandt or de Kooning.

And that’s all any of us will get to know of Kawara. Since starting his “Today” series, he’s refused all interviews or public appearances or to sit for any photos. (The catalogue to the Zwirner show includes one snapshot that shows the artist from the back, revealing only that he’s not a giant or a dwarf or missing major parts. He would not permit it to appear with this story.) Kawara prefers to let his repeated assertion of his continued presence in the world—made in the old-fashioned medium of paint, hand applied with meticulous old-fashioned skills—stand for everything he is. At most, he’ll release his age as a tally of days—28,867 of them as of his Zwirner opening on Jan. 6, meaning he’s just turned 79. “He doesn’t want to be known as a person,” says Angela Choon, the Zwirner partner who has been dealing with Kawara for the last 14 years. (She happened to be speaking on the 46th anniversary of the first “Today” painting.) “It’s more about the work—for him, that’s enough.”

On Kawara Artist
Paintings from the Today series by On Kawara, installed in his exhibition at David Zwirner gallery in New York. Each one is painted on the day that it features, as a record of the artist's presence and life. (Photo by Lucy Hogg)
“You get to know this amazing information about this person’s life—but you don’t get to know his emotions, or his physiognomy,” says Wylie.

Charles Wylie curated a big Kawara show at the Dallas Museum of Art in 2008, and got to know the artist then. “Just on a human basis, I immediately liked him,” says Wylie, “I never got the idea that he was being coy or reclusive, as part of a persona.” Wylie calls Kawara’s “Today” series “literally a registering of himself, and of time,” and believes it raises important questions about what it is to know anyone. “You get a huge amount of information about him, through his work—more than I might have about my friends, or a public figure,” Wylie says. After all, we know where Kawara was on many days of his life, and what he was up to on them—that he was busy painting the picture that he’s put before us. And that is a more concrete, usable, specific fact than Rembrandt ever provides. “You get to know this amazing information about this person’s life—but you don’t get to know his emotions, or his physiognomy,” says Wylie.

On Kawara Artist
Paintings from the Today series by On Kawara, installed in his exhibition at David Zwirner gallery in New York. Each one is painted on the day that it features, as a record of the artist's presence and life. (Photo by Lucy Hogg)

As with any normal suite of portraits done over time, the scale Kawara uses varies, from about text-book size—especially for paintings done abroad in a hotel, where he has to bring his canvas with him—to a grand and ceremonial 5 feet by 7. That’s the size of three pictures in the Zwirner show that record the dates when the Apollo 11 mission took off, orbited the moon, and then landed on it. Like all the rest of us, it seems that Kawara felt his own presence in the world expanding as humankind expanded beyond earth. (As with many of the date paintings, each Apollo picture is stored with the newspaper front page that presents the events of its day. Some of these front pages are on view in vitrines at Zwirner.)

On Kawara Artist
JAN. 4, 1966, by On Kawara, from his Today series. (Courtesy David Zwirner, New York)

Lynne Cooke, now chief curator at the Reina Sofia museum in Madrid, got to know Kawara over her many years at the Dia Art Foundation in New York, which owns his work in depth. She points out that there have been very few other artists who’ve embraced an all-consuming, career-defining “life project” on the scale of Kawara’s date paintings. “I read them existentially. They’re a witness to being alive, each day.” And this unrelenting dailyness, she says, is something anyone can relate to.

Cooke, like the few other curators and dealers who have got to know the man behind the dates (he doesn’t reveal himself to collectors or fans) insists that Kawara is no agoraphobe or misanthrope. “He’s very available when you’re working with him, and he talks about the work, and tells stories,” she says. Choon, the partner at Zwirner, describes him as “a great guy” who happens to prefer privacy to publicity, and time in the studio to time on the scene. According to Wylie, who did the Dallas show, Kawara worries about the extra filter that might come between viewers and his work if they had a known persona to relate the paintings to, or the artist’s words to take into account. “The idea of a date is extremely salient in most people’s lives. You immediately think of where you were on the date you see,” says Wylie—and Kawara prefers you contemplating that than anything he’s been quoted as saying or the fact that he’s tall or short, gorgeous or ugly. (Wylie describes him as “a perfectly nice looking gentleman—Japanese.”) Of course, by so avidly avoiding the public realm, Kawara only intensifies his effect on it: his unrelenting absence registers more strongly than your average artist’s presence. The record that he leaves behind each time he paints a date becomes that much more potent when that’s all there is of him.

All self-portraiture is about artists reducing themselves to a few marks on a surface. Kawara has just taken that further than most.