On Kawara, Giant of Conceptual Art, Dead at 81

He was preparing a 2015 retrospective at the Guggenheim.

Japanese artist On Kawara was famous for date paintings.

On Kawara, the Japanese-born, New York–based conceptual artist best-known for his date paintings, has died at the age of 81. David Zwirner Gallery, which represents Kawara, confirmed the sad news on its homepage. At the time of his death he was preparing for a major retrospective titled “Silence,” slated to open at New York’s Guggenheim Museum on February 6, 2015.

Born on January 2, 1933, Kawara grew up in Kariya before moving to Tokyo, and, in 1965, to New York. That is where he began his most famous series of works, the Today paintings, on January 4, 1966. Since then he completed thousands of these paintings, which he worked to complete in a single day—the day whose date they depict—and destroyed if he hadn’t finished by midnight. Though they may appear unchanging when seen in isolated settings, the Today paintings actually exist in a broad range of colors—from black and gray to royal blue and red—canvas sizes, and different formats of date depending on the conventions of the country where they were painted. “26. ÁG. 1995,” reads one that was painted in Iceland; one executed in the US reads “DEC. 24, 1978.” The series was the subject of a major exhibition at Zwirner’s Chelsea gallery in 2012.

A similarly obsessive project of Kawara’s on the subject of time was One Million Years (1969), a performance art piece he debuted in 1969 that involves the methodical reading of one million years, one by one, from the book One Million Years(1999), which features a million years typed out on a typewriter, one year at a time.

In addition to the forthcoming Guggenheim exhibition, Kawara had major solo shows at the Dallas Museum of Art (in 2008), the Museum für Moderne Kunst in Frankfurt (in 1996), SFMOMA (in 1991), Stockholm’s Moderna Museet (in 1980), and many, many other shows. He was also included in the 1976 Venice Biennale.

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On Kawara date paintings at David Zwirner in 2012.
Photo: Benjamin Sutton.

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