Review

29,771 days: On Kawara’s Workload

On Karawa—Silence
Guggenheim Museum, New York
February 6–May 3, 2015
Michael Ned Holte

Personally, I cannot stand the work it requires to ensure oneself a meaningful demise.
–Frances Stark1

ON KAWARA: WE ARE NOT BUSY, WE ARE OCCUPIED.
–Lee Lozano, unpublished notebook entry2

For nearly a half century, On Kawara marked his existence. In the process of doing so he produced a singular body of work that includes thousands of postcards sent to friends from wherever the artist was located, each stamped with the exact time he got out of bed on a given day (I Got Up, 1968–79); documents of his daily travels, traced in red ink on Xeroxed maps, contained in 24 binders (I Went, 1968–79); lists of everyone the artist encountered, neatly typed, one page per day, also in 24 binders (I Met, 1968–79); and, perhaps most famously, nearly 3000 paintings, each noting a single date in neatly hand-painted white letters and numbers against a monochromatic background, with each painting started and finished before the day’s end—with almost every painting accompanied by a handmade cardboard box and a clipping from the day’s newspaper from wherever he was located (Today, 1966–2013). The so-called Date Paintings of the Today series—frequently but intermittently produced—are fully catalogued by date, size, and color in another series of 48 binders maintained by the artist (Journals, 1966–2013). With all this work, and much more, it is unlikely that any artist produced a more sustained record of his or her existence. Yet Kawara’s account is not complete—an impossibility, and also not the point. Nor is his accounting a self-critical reckoning: there are no implications of judgment in the lists of people he met or the time of day he got up or how much work he produced. Many days he apparently produced nothing.

On Kawara, "JUN 10 1975" from "I Got Up", 1968–79. Stamped ink on postcard, 3 1⁄2 x 5 1⁄2 inches. Collection of Keiji and Sawako Usami.

On Kawara, JUN 10 1975 from I Got Up, 1968–79. Stamped ink on postcard, 3 1⁄2 x 5 1⁄2 inches. Collection of Keiji and Sawako Usami.

We are all marking our existence, every day—when we send an email or a text, when we post a picture on Facebook or Instagram, when we pay for groceries with a debit card or withdraw money from an ATM. We can’t help but accumulate a trail of evidence of our communication, travel, and expenditures. Needless to say, an important distinction to make is that Kawara’s accounting is clearly a self-conscious act and a highly selective one. There is, in fact, much more we don’t know about his daily existence—his “personal life”—than is revealed by the work he willfully put into the world. Rarely does the term “body of work” seem so paradoxical: Kawara’s body and its daily rhythms are evidenced in the maps of his journeys, in the postcards indicating when he got out of bed, in the newspaper articles and advertisements he cut out, and in the meticulous paintings that (only) upon close inspection begin to reveal the artist’s hand; and yet, public images of the artist are scarce—nonexistent for most of his career—and he never attended his own openings. A body is produced (habeas corpus), but only through a trail of circumstantial evidence. And whatever evidence of his life Kawara put into the world was clearly done so as art, rather than as a document of existence.

 —

JUN. 27, 2014: Another day in a stream of days, as newsworthy and utterly banal as any other. It’s also the date that marks On Kawara’s death, though the artist’s official biography lists his time on earth, today and forever, as “29,771 days”—consistent with the artist’s preferred accounting for his own timeline.3  Kawara’s death coincided with preparations for a major retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum, in the artist’s adopted hometown. On Kawara—Silence, organized by Jeffrey Weiss with Anne Wheeler and the initial participation of the artist, is the largest survey of Kawara’s work in the United States to date. Despite Weiss’s careful avoidance of the term “retrospective,” the artist’s recent death provided an undeniably timely opportunity to assess a remarkable and now finite body of work—one overwhelmingly dedicated to a meditation on mortality. It is perhaps worth mentioning that the exhibition worked against the grain of so many spectacularized gestures in Frank Lloyd Wright’s dramatic rotunda.4 Viewers, myself included, traced the contours of the museum’s spiral in hushed contemplation, surely owing to the intimate scale of much of the work, but also in the dawning awareness that Kawara’s death, along with the abundant work he realized while alive, serves as a prediction of our own eventual demise. Studying Kawara’s output, including two life calendars—One Hundred Years Calendar—20th Century “24,845 days” (2004) and One Hundred Years Calendar—21st Century “4,059 days” (2012), one for each century in which he lived—one was provided with an artist’s arid, if elegant, equivalent of actuarial tables.

On Kawara, "APR  – 1 1969" from "I Got Up", 1968–79. Stamped ink on postcard, 6 x  9 inches. MTM Collection, Japan.

On Kawara, APR – 1 1969 from I Got Up, 1968–79. Stamped ink on postcard, 6 x 9 inches. MTM Collection, Japan.

Retrospective or not, the exhibition raises significant questions—for the artist’s legacy and also (perhaps more urgently) for us. Any meaningful consideration of Kawara’s work in 2015 must engage the multiple ways in which our everyday lives are recorded and measured, sometimes intentionally, often without our participation. Despite evidence of self-control in his life and his art (which are often overlapping categories), Kawara the historical figure cannot resist the demands of social media or the relentless accounting of the Internet in his afterlife. Wikipedia obliterates the artist’s reticence and resistance to the usual expectations of art world self-promotion, his refusal to have his picture reproduced, his custom of not writing his birthdate but rather the number of days he’s been alive. Now, adding insult to injury, it also includes the date of his death.5 Did the artist use the Internet? Did he accumulate metadata?

“There is no possible harmonization between actual living beings and the demands of 24/7 capitalism, but there are countless inducements to delusionally suspend or obscure some of the humiliating limitations of lived experience, whether emotional or biological,” notes Jonathan Crary in his recent book 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, which details a gradual but inevitable expansion of the workday, due in part to the technological possibility of a global market without pause. “Figurations of the inert or inanimate also operate as a protective or numbing shield, to evade recognition of the harsh expendability of life within contemporary economic and institutional arrangements.”6 While Kawara chose to mark many of the “humiliating limitations of lived experience,” it is important to note that his work was predicated on the 24-hour unit—the regularized movement of the earth around the sun—a framework that is not technological or ideological, but cosmological.

Despite his intensive devotion to representing some version of the daily routine and his marking of an ever-elusive present, Kawara was also thinking deeply about the past and future, confirmed by his work that compiles lists of one million years ending in 1969 (One Million Years: Past, 1970–71) and one million years beginning in 1981(One Million Years: Future, 1980–98), each in tidy columns on pages maintained in a total of 240 binders. The former is dedicated “For all those who have lived and died,” an inclusive club; the latter is dedicated to the most exclusive set one could imagine: “For the last one.” For the duration of On Kawara—Silence, One Million Years was read aloud during museum hours by two performers (always a man and woman) seated at a table at the bottom of the Guggenheim’s atrium. The reading of One Million Years: Past and One Million Years: Future has continued, intermittently, since it was transposed to an aural format in 1993.

Performers reading On Kawara’s "One Million Years: Past" (1970–71) and "One Million Years: Future" (1980–98) during "On Kawara—Silence", Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 2015. Photo: David Heald. © Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation.

Performers reading On Kawara’s One Million Years: Past (1970–71) and One Million Years: Future (1980–98) during On Kawara—Silence, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 2015. Photo: David Heald. © Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation.

Kawara’s proximity to Conceptual art is without question—his work (not to mention his participation in many of the movement’s signal exhibitions) parallels and helps define the term and what Benjamin Buchloh has characterized as that movement’s “aesthetics of administration”: “What Conceptual Art achieved at least temporarily…was to subject the last residues of artistic aspiration toward transcendence (by means of traditional studio skills and privileged modes of experience) to the rigorous and relentless order of the vernacular of administration.”7 While Kawara only rates a footnote in Buchloh’s essay, his methodical accounting and chosen materials—typewriter, rubber stamps, binders, Xerox pages, calendars, and so on—evidence his administrative approach.8

Still, Kawara’s diligent, bureaucratic accounting for his days was not without moments of humor or hints of existential dread—particularly in the early shaping of gestures that would only later become routinized. DEC. 5, 1969: On Kawara sent a telegram to the curator Michel Claura, transmitting an anxious and unpunctuated (if necessarily impersonal) message from New York to Paris:

I AM NOT GOING TO COMMIT SUICIDE DON’T WORRY
ON KAWARA

Three days later, it was followed by a second telegram to Claura—this one seemingly more alarming, if confusing in its syntax:

I AM NOT GOING TO COMMIT SUICIDE WORRY
ON KAWARA

On December 11, a third and final telegram is sent, providing a sudden sense of closure.

I AM GOING TO SLEEP FORGET IT
ON KAWARA

On Kawara, "I AM NOT GOING TO COMMIT SUICIDE DON’T WORRY", 1969. Telegram to Michel Claura, December 5, 1969; 6 5⁄16 x 8 3⁄16 inches. Collection of Michel Claura. Photo: Kris McKay. © Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York.

On Kawara, I AM NOT GOING TO COMMIT SUICIDE DON’T WORRY, 1969. Telegram to Michel Claura, December 5, 1969; 6 5⁄16 x 8 3⁄16 inches. Collection of Michel Claura. Photo: Kris McKay. © Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York.

On Kawara, "I AM NOT GOING TO COMMIT SUICIDE WORRY", 1969. Telegram to Michel Claura, December 8, 1969; 6 13⁄16 x 8 3⁄16 inches. Collection of Michel Claura. Photo: Kris McKay © Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York.

On Kawara, I AM NOT GOING TO COMMIT SUICIDE WORRY, 1969. Telegram to Michel Claura, December 8, 1969; 6 13⁄16 x 8 3⁄16 inches. Collection of Michel Claura. Photo: Kris McKay © Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York.

On Kawara, "I AM GOING TO SLEEP FORGET IT", 1969. Telegram to Michel Claura, December , 1969;  6 3⁄8 x 8 3⁄16 inches. Collection of Michel Claura. Photo: Kris McKay © Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York.

On Kawara, I AM GOING TO SLEEP FORGET IT, 1969. Telegram to Michel Claura, December 11, 1969; 6 3⁄8 x 8 3⁄16 inches. Collection of Michel Claura. Photo: Kris McKay © Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York.

But other works, including One Million Years, also suggest that more than the bureaucratic accounting and tautological signs of life—Buchloh’s “aesthetics of administration”—were on Kawara’s mind. In 2006, while writing on the Center for Land Use Interpretation (an organization formed in the late 1990s that knowingly borrowed some of its administrative aesthetic from Conceptual art forebears), I invoked Buchloh’s “aesthetics of administration” while also attempting to push for a more paradoxical understanding of that suggestive phrase and its potential—despite Buchloh’s argument to the contrary—aspirations for transcendence. Tongue only partially in cheek, I referred to this paradoxical condition as “the administrative sublime”—when counting (or accounting) appeals to a potentially transcendent condition.9 Death, if nothing else, is a form of transcendence—particularly from a life spent accounting. A dedication to “the last one” suggests at least a consideration of—if not yearning for—transcendence. (Yes, the words “yearning” and “administration” are strange bedfellows.) Kawara might, in fact, be the first and most important artist we should situate in this unlikely category.

The predetermined mode of production eliminates the need or even the option for the artist’s spontaneous intervention and creative involvement. All that is required is a repetitive, almost mechanical labor: layers of paint application, standardized documentation,
and uniform packaging. Clearly, Kawara’s one-day workload is comparable to that of a clock-punching office clerk or an assembly-line worker. However, despite the tightly regulated labor or, rather, because of such stringent organization, Kawara’s daily activity is essentially meaningless, unlike production in a real workplace. His labor is meticulous but unproductive, as his actions actually produce nothing other than a series of almost identical canvases. The “rationalized time” on his canvas eliminates and ultimately abstracts the sense of epistemological duration. It is not a lived or experienced continuity of a subject,
but rather a pure articulation of punctuality.10

In the essay “On Kawara’s Date Paintings: Series of Horror and Boredom,” historian Jung-Ah Woo paints a vivid picture of Kawara’s workload issues. Woo’s description implies a kind of performance of work, not unlike the way Andy Warhol’s Factory was a kind of performance of a factory. (Work is a drag.) Then again, most artists working in lofts in New York in the postwar era obliterated any tidy demarcation between life and work, toward the “static redundancy” of 24/7 time Crary describes. (Warhol, who usually went home at the end of the day, is an exception—though some of his Factory workers lived there.11 Kawara’s practice practically defines the home-office. And we know from the evidence that he was adept at turning his many hotel rooms into makeshift studios.

But I’m hung up on Woo’s phrase “meaningless.” Why are Kawara’s objects—most of which entered the marketplace and were acquired by museums or private collectors—any more meaningless than other consumer goods put in the world through tightly regulated labor? No goods are inherently meaningful—objects accrue meaning in context, and over time. Nevertheless, controlling the means of production did not give Kawara control of the meaning and value of the objects he put into the world. This is surely true for all artists.

It’s intriguing to consider Kawara’s workload in relation to several other artists who were also accounting for their time in ambitious, if quite different, ways. (The fact that these artists making durational work coexisted in Manhattan makes the relationship all the more tantalizing.) Taiwanese artist Tehching Hsieh arrived in New York in the 1970s and executed several yearlong works there. The second of these self-administered endurance tests most explicitly suggests a relation to the material and psychological demands of labor. From 7:00 p.m. on April 11, 1980 to 6:00 p.m. on April 11, 1981, Hsieh punched a time clock, every hour on the hour, REM sleep be damned. Quite unlike Kawara, Hsieh documented his harried physical appearance, and growing hair, with 16 mm film. We also know, from the rubber stamped evidence on nearly 12 years of postcards, that the time Kawara got out of bed varied greatly from day to day, often occurring deep into the afternoon. (It’s unclear whether or not he was ever working in bed—working, in Kawara’s case, would include reading the newspaper—though presumably most of his work was done after getting up.) There are also many days over the course of his career for which there is no evidence of Kawara making art: his routine is riddled with travel and other disruptions.

On Kawara, "DEC. 29, 1977" “Thursday.” New York from "Today", 1966–2013. Acrylic on canvas, 8 x 10 inches. Pictured with artist-made cardboard storage boxes, 10 1⁄2 x 10 3⁄4 x 2 inches. Private collection. Photo Courtesy David Zwirner, New York/London.

On Kawara, DEC. 29, 1977 “Thursday.” New York from Today, 1966–2013. Acrylic on canvas, 8 x 10 inches. Pictured with artist-made cardboard storage boxes, 10 1⁄2 x 10 3⁄4 x 2 inches. Private collection. Photo Courtesy David Zwirner, New York/London.

Kawara produced at least one Date Painting per day for the first three months of 1970—a consecutive streak he never matched. On January 9 and 29, February 3, March 6 and 30, Kawara made two Date Paintings each day; on March 18 he made three. The last of the three paintings on March 18 is subtitled “United States’ postal system’s first strike started today in New York metropolitan area”—extracted from the headlines. Presumably, the strike, coinciding with Kawara’s productive day of work, delayed the transmission of a postcard or two.

Curiously, this three-month period coincided with Lee Lozano’s radical attempt to break free from the routine enacted in many of her durational pieces from the previous year. Circa February 20, 1970, Lozano determines to “START LIVING AT MORE RANDOM HOURS. DESTROY SCHEDULES. SLEEP, EAT, GROOM, TAKE VITAMIN PILLS ETC IRREGULARLY TO BUILD UP RESISTANCE TO HABIT-FORMING, TO MAKE LIVING MORE INTERESTING & FLEXIBLE.”12

Just a day (or so) after Kawara’s three-month painting streak comes to an end, Lozano accounts for a lazy April Fool’s Day:

LYING ON BED SMOKING, EMPTYING MIND, LISTENING TO
RACHMANINOV IN DIM (CITYPOOR) LIGHTBULB A FEELING
OF PEACE COMES OVER ME, OF JOYOUS FREEDOM, OF IM
DOING WHAT I WANT, OF I DONT HAVE TO DO ANYTHING
UNTIL I FEEL LIKE IT…DROP OUT FROM WORLD, NO CALLS
NO WORK NO OBLIGATIONS NO GUILT NO DESIRES, JUST MY
MIND WANDERING LAZILY OFF ITS LEASH. THIS EVIDENTLY
IS THE ONLY WAY TO TAKE A REST.13

On April 5, she acknowledges to herself (and to later readers of her notebooks) that she is undertaking—or has perhaps already undertaken—a work she called Dropout Piece that continues indefinitely, perhaps (that word again) until her death in 1999.

IT WAS INEVITABLE, SINCE I WORK IN SETS OF COURSE,
THAT I DO THE DROPOUT (NOTE PUN) PIECE. IT HAS BEEN
CHURNING FOR A LONG TIME BUT I THINK IT’S ABT TO
BLOW. DROPOUT PIECE IS THE HARDEST WORK I HAVE
EVER DONE.14

The last of these notebook entries draws together the presumed opposition between work and the resistance to it. Is it too much of a stretch to imagine Lozano and Kawara wrestling with the same opposition simultaneously, each finding ways of closing the gap between work and lassitude? Is pleasure the opposite of work, or are the two terms coextensive? What did Kawara do while the paint dried? Read the newspaper, go for a walk, send a postcard, smoke a cigarette—these diversions we know. On November 8, 1973, he clipped the television schedule from the newspaper, but did he watch anything? (The Today Show?) Did he ever take a nap? Masturbate? Talk on the phone? Did he have hobbies? Fix elaborate lunches? Go see movies? Reading the newspaper was inextricably part of the work, but what about books? Did he keep Proust on his bedside table?

Installation view of "On Kawara—Silence", Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 2015. Photo: David Heald. © Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation.

Installation view of On Kawara—Silence, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 2015. Photo: David Heald. © Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation.

“Maybe art is an opposite of working, in the sense that it is a form of resistance to productivity,” suggests Frances Stark’s digital avatar in her 2011 video My Best Thing. Despite her “maybe,” Stark’s dictum gives me pause—particularly in consideration of On Kawara’s relentless workload. According to one anecdote, Kawara neglected to show up at a social engagement, and the next day he sent the painting he stayed home to make. Lozano, too, made a point (meaning: she made a piece) of boycotting uptown functions. Evidence of disappearance becomes a proxy for the body that refuses to appear.

What is the importance of On Kawara now—nearly a half century since he made his first painting of the day’s date? Or, better: What do we do with an artist whose major statement was made nearly fifty years before his final work—particularly when the late work looks almost exactly like the initial statement? The longevity of Kawara’s project and its stability since 1966, with the inception of the Today series, suggests a wholesale rejection of artistic progress. Yet Kawara’s lifework of routinely tending to the present surely grows more meaningful over time, expanding exponentially rather than simply accruing with each new Date Painting produced. Inevitably it will continue to accrue meaning in death, well beyond his control.

MAY 1, 2015: A headline reads: “Guggenheim Closes for the Afternoon as Workers’ Advocates Escalate Protests.”

 

Michael Ned Holte is a writer, curator, and co-director of the Art Program at the California Institute of the Arts. He is organizing the exhibition Routine Pleasures, which will open at the MAK Center for Art and Architecture in May 2016.

Footnotes

  1. Frances Stark, The Architect & the Housewife (London: Book Works, 1999), 23.
  2. Lee Lozano, Notebook 9, 27. Sarah Lehrer-Graiwer alerted me to several entries regarding On Kawara in Lee Lozano’s unpublished notebooks. I am grateful for this information and Lehrer-Graiwer’s responses to my inquiries in the writing of the present text.
  3. This is provided at the outset of the artist’s biography on the David Zwirner gallery website, as well as the exhibition catalog published by the Guggenheim for On Kawara—Silence.
  4. Numerous examples in recent years include solo exhibitions by Matthew Barney, Maurizio Cattelan (in an installation that included nearly every work he had made), and James Turrell. Perhaps the first and most influential instance of this kind of large-scale gesture in the Guggenheim is Daniel Buren’s Peinture-Sculpture (1971), an enormous fabric banner in the artist’s characteristic stripes that was suspended in the museum’s atrium for the Sixth Guggenheim International exhibition, and served as a visual barrier dividing the space in half. Several of the artists in the exhibition, including Donald Judd and Dan Flavin, complained about the work—its scale clearly dwarfed their contributions—and Buren’s work was removed before the show opened to the public. Nevertheless, the work is known through photographs of its installation and has been accorded significant consideration by art historians. Buren was vindicated by the museum with a retrospective in 2005, titled Eye of the Storm, which included a new atrium-filling installation. Kawara’s work was included in the Sixth Guggenheim International Exhibition, but he did not register a complaint about Buren.
  5. A fake Twitter account created using the name On Kawara repeatedly tweets “I am still alive” on a semi-regular basis. As of this writing, the tweets continue, more than a year after the artist’s death. Presumably, the result was as much a parody of Twitter as it was the artist’s intermittent telegrams that the site reiterated. However, the ongoing, “authorless” gesture also reiterates many provocations of Kawara’s work—and, possibly its affirmations—while raising additional questions about (self-) representation and authorship in the present technological paradigm.
  6. Jonathan Crary, 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep (London and New York: Verso), 100.
  7. Benjamin H.D. Buchloh, “Conceptual Art, circa 1962–1969: From the Aesthetics of Administration to the Critique of Institutions,” in Conceptual Art: A Critical Anthology, ed. Alexander Alberro and Blake Stimson (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1999), 532.
  8. According to Buchloh’s footnote, Kawara’s aesthetics of administration were a big influence on Joseph Kosuth, who paid repeated visits to the artist while accompanied by Dan Graham. Kawara’s own accounting for everyone he “met” at that time corroborates this evidence.
  9. “The very nature of these projects eschews the tautological definitions of art-for-art’s-sake that are endemic to Conceptual practice, in favor of administration-for-administration’s-sake: that is, administration taken to the boundaries of experience.” See my “The Administrative Sublime, or The Center for Land Use Interpretation at the Circumference,” Afterall 13 (Spring/Summer 2006), 26.
  10. Jung-Ah Woo, “On Kawara’s Date Paintings: Series of Horror and Boredom,” Art Journal (Fall 2010), 65.
  11. I am indebted to Caroline A. Jones’s account of Warhol’s Factories and his relationship to work in “Andy Warhol’s Factory, ‘Commonism,’ and Business Art Business,” in The Machine in the Studio: Constructing the Postwar American Artist (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), 189–267.
  12. Sarah Lehrer-Graiwer, One Work: Lee Lozano, Dropout Piece (London: Afterall Books, 2014), 56. Lehrer-Graiwer also alerted me to a notebook entry regarding an exchange between the two artists: “MY BEST REMARK (DINNER, APR 11, 70) (TO ON): YOU KILL TIME. DO YOU EVER GIVE BIRTH TO t?” (Lozano, Notebook 8, 153) Lozano frequently used an underlined, lowercase “t” to refer to time.
  13. Ibid., 74.
  14. Ibid., 24. “ABT” = “ABOUT.”