On Kawara’s work considers how personal and historical consciousness affects our understanding of place and time. He first explored this concept in a series of works that he created in his New York studio in 1965, only two of which remain: Title (a triptych of deep pink canvases comprising the statements “one thing,” “1965,” and “viet-nam”) and lat.31°25´n, long. 8°41´e. As opposed to his earlier, figurative works, these paintings announce the artist’s intention to concentrate solely on language systems—a tendency made famous in the “Today” series that he began in 1966—and reveal his lifelong fascination with the instability of communication, especially through the written word. However, while the clarity of the type font and his use of black and white in his painting lat.31°25´n, long. 8°41´e suggest a sense of legibility, a more nuanced investigation reveals a far more ambiguous reading, one that is almost completely cryptic. In contrast to the geographic specificity inferred by the use of latitudinal and longitudinal coordinates, the actual site revealed by these markers is a stretch of uninhabited land in the middle of the so-called Great Eastern Sand Sea that runs across Algeria and Tunisia. It is a non-site, devoid of any historical or personal significance. Therefore, in contrast to the specificity of the title and the coordinates provided, On Kawara in fact presents the viewer with the very antithesis of a location: a vast empty space that would complement the homogenous, empty time of his subsequent date paintings.
On Kawara was a conceptual artist whose paintings, drawings, postcards, books, and recordings were driven by his preoccupation with time as a measurement of human existence. His early paintings were shown at the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum in 1953. His first trip outside Japan in 1959 initiated his lifelong penchant for traveling. On January 4, 1966, shortly after settling in New York, On Kawara began his famous “Today” series consisting of hundreds of “Date Paintings.” On a black or colored background he would paint only the date when the work was made, in white lettering, using the language of his location for that day. These visual records carry information about Kawara’s life and activities. One Million Years (1969), his multivolume work about the passage and marking of time, has been performed as a reading and also recorded. It lists each year, in the million-year periods, before and after the work’s conception. On Kawara participated in many biennials, including those in Tokyo (1970), Venice, and Kyoto (1976), and Documenta, Kassel (1972; 1982; 2002). The first major retrospective of his work was at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, in 2015.