Thursday, July 7, 2011

Another On Kawara

by Stephen Cummings

On Kawara, 1978, Apr. 27, 1978

My compliments to the Carnegie Museum of Art for hanging their collection chronologically. The practice is in no way unusual of course, but in this particular configuration it allowed me to experience an old artist in a new and supremely satisfying way. I've seen On Kawara's paintings before, those brazenly direct canvases putting forward nothing but a date. Oct.31,1978. Apr.24,1990. If you don't know about the Today Series, it might make you go, Huh, someone painted a date. If you do know, it sort of makes you go, Huh, he really does paint the dates. The experience definitely has a slant of novelty, but the paintings are more than that. There's a Minimal appeal to the work; clean, white letters on flat, dark grounds; and there's something vaguely profound about the act of constructing the date and offering it up for consideration, as though the day itself were being made, or would not have otherwise been. Most often you'll see these canvases alone, single examples amid the throb of post-modern (are we calling it that?) exuberance, or reticence, or reductive, deconstructive explication. At other times you might find two or three together, a little huddling group looking skeptically at the other artists' paintings. Why so showy, Ellsworth Kelly? Then there are those retrospectives, which I have not seen myself, but that pictures indicate are filled with nothing but date paintings, great, stark gatherings of day upon day, powerful in their uniformity.

At the Carnegie Museum my experience was different. Perusing the Scaife Galleries from present to past I first came upon Kawara's Feb. 29, 1988, a small, grey to black object in the classic Kawara style. My reaction was typical, something along the lines of, Ah, On Kawara. Little more thought was given. I've seen these, after all; my visit was not interrupted. Farther on however, in another gallery, I found myself considering Apr. 27, 1978. Wait, hadn't I just seen On Kawara? Confused, I backtracked to find the first painting. Indeed I had. So little notice had I given the first time that I still was unsure whether my mind was playing tricks on me when confronted with the second, red painting. Now I could compare them in my mind; I had forgotten some of these Today paintings came in color. The pleasure began to set in. Around another wall, 19 Jul. 68. This one was again grey-black (more grey and less black?), but with rounded lettering, more like the free-loving ‘60s. I laughed out loud.

Needless to say, I enjoyed the surprise. Setting aside the novelty, however, there is much to recommend this way of presenting and considering Kawara's work. It's tempting to group the Today paintings because their forms are so similar. Presenting them far apart from one another must be a far more conscious decision than with the work of someone like Philip Guston, for example, whose paintings underwent massive transformations during his career. By seeing them apart, we are reminded that each painting is in fact unique, something that's easy to forget when they are presented serially. We may also be reminded of their similarities though. It helps to see Kawara's paintings grouped with other paintings of the same period, to be reminded what Frank Stella and Paul Feeley were doing when Kawara painted 19 Jul. 68, and what Bruce Nauman was doing when Feb. 29, 1988 was made. The Today Series is remarkably consistent in the presence of such changing approaches, and all the more remarkable for having remained so over so many decades.

The greatest pleasure for me was to be reminded of the passage of time, to remember that each of these dates is distinct, and represents a real time in the past. Kawara's paintings — whether you see the accompanying newspaper-lined boxes or not — are like time capsules sent out into the world to remind us of our own existence. One day in 1968, On Kawara actually made the day, a day different from all the other days, distinct from the day before and the one after. And here it is for us too see in 2011, 19 Jul. 68, just as it was then, made by a man alive on that day, considered by you and me on this day. Without the progression, from one day in 1968 to another, separate and distinct, in 1978, to yet another, equally unique, just as far removed, in 1988, it’s too easy to see each painting as just another day, one in an endless series of sameness. Fortunately, at the Carnegie, these paintings are much more.

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