Thinking Man is part of a series of three works that On Kawara exhibited to great acclaim (along with Butcher's Wife and Smallpox) at the first Nippon exhibition held in Tokyo in 1953. These paintings all displayed motifs that would be present throughout the artist’s years in Japan and would find particular resonance in his subsequent “Bathroom” series: wounded and diseased bodies that contemplate and jostle within tight or vertiginous spaces. Of all of the artist’s work of this period, Thinking Man is the most ambiguous image, but also perhaps the most shocking. For while the figure does not display the dismembered limbs characteristic of other works, his psychological wounds are no less severe. Enclosed within a claustrophobically tight space, the figure of Thinking Man appears utterly paralyzed with fear; his gaunt, naked, and distorted body holding him transfixed to the spot.
The figure is thus emblematic of the wider trauma gripping Japan during the 1950s, in which, after the total destruction of Nagasaki and Hiroshima by atomic bombs, and unconditional surrender of Japan at the end of the war in the Pacific, the country had to contend with both the large-scale occupation by Allied forces and the imminent onset of another war in neighboring Korea. Unlike many of his peers, however, On Kawara does not address these horrors directly in his work, but rather grapples with the inability of both the artist and the nation to reconcile these new events with the trauma of the end of the previous war.
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.