On Kawara, MARCH 5, 2000, 2000, liquitex on canvas, 10“ x 13 1/2”.
I MET ON KAWARA ON OCT. 25, 1991 AT 4 PM. He lived just a few streets over from my apartment in SoHo, but it might as well have been miles and lifetimes away. Until that day, he only existed for me through his work, and I wasn’t sure what to expect. Before you meet an artist, you have an image of the person by way of what they do, which was particularly the case with On. To look at a Date painting from his “Today” series was, in a sense, to see him sitting quietly at his desk, from the back, of course, carefully brushing the ground on which he would paint the letters and numbers to record the date, a form of daily meditation. I wanted to borrow one of his Date paintings for a show I was organizing around the year 1969. Luckily I knew Katia Perlstein, slightly, and she was happy to make an introduction. Her father, Sylvio, the Belgian jeweler and diamond dealer, was an early collector of On’s, whom I was aware of by name and by his Antwerp address, probably from telegrams or postcards On had sent him. That afternoon, my image of On shifted from the art to the person, who turned out to be warm and engaging, talkative, but a good listener, serious and also easily amused, often by his own remarks. As I recall, he laughed and smoked a lot.
Years before, I had devoured the catalogue continuity/discontinuity 1963–1979, published for the show mounted by Björn Springfeldt at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm in 1980. What struck me most in that catalogue—and still does—is a section listing the subtitles that accompany the Date paintings. Commencing on Jan. 4, 1966, On would paint the date on which the painting was made, giving them subtitles taken from that day’s newspaper, or from events or observations in his own life. In the fall of 1972, however, he decided that the subtitles would simply identify the day of the week, deviating only by the language of the place where they were made—Monday, Tuesday, Mittwoch, Torsdag, Vendredo, Sábado, Dimanche. But with the earliest subtitles, there is a narrative that reveals much about this reclusive artist—his sense of humor, curiosity, absurdity, and pathos, how wondrous and troubled the marking of time could be—and situates his paintings within their historical context. There is at times a high level of poetry to be found there, even of autobiography, unexpected for someone who chose not to be photographed or interviewed, who shunned that sort of distraction, who was already present in his work and in the first person: I Met, I Went, I Read, I Got Up, I Am Still Alive. This aspect of presence and remove stands in stark contrast to artists today who willingly assist in the promotion of themselves and their work. In many ways, On was an artist from another time.
The majority of the subtitles gives us a strong sense of the sociocultural milieu and how politically charged that era had been:
Jan. 31, 1966 “U.S.A. began to bomb North Vietnam Again.”
June 17, 1966 “An 18-year-old girl, Dao Thi Tuyet, poured gasoline over herself in Saigon’s Buddhist Vien Hoa Dao Pagoda headquarters and struck a match.”
June 19, 1967 “Black Power in the United States.”
July 21, 1969 “Apollo 11 at the Distance of 238,857 Miles from the Earth”
Dec. 27, 1971 “An American flag flying upside down from the crown of Statue of Liberty on Liberty Island, New York.”
There are those that attest to his state of mind and physical well-being:
Mar. 20, 1966 “Taeko kissed me. I asked her ‘are you all right?’”
May 29, 1966 “I am afraid of my ‘Today’ paintings.”
Dec. 31, 1966 “To make a hole in a day as a nap.”
July 10, 1967 “I have a dull pain in my eyes.”
July 17, 1971 “I got up at 11.38 A.M. and painted this.”
His sense of humor and the absurd, often with references to pop culture, emerge:
Jan. 25, 1966 “Beatles and their neutrality.”
Apr. 10, 1966 “You can’t quite sentimentalize Easter.”
May 28, 1966 “Are your ideas on computers worth shouting about?”
Dec. 22, 1966 “‘The LSD I am proposing is literal.’ says Allen Ginsberg, in The East Village Other.’”
Mar. 4, 1967 “There’s too much lettuce in California now.”
There are interactions with other artists:
Feb. 4, 1967 “C. Oldenburg and J. Klein came to my studio this afternoon. In the evening I went to Oldenburg’s studio to ask him if I could use my asking him as the title of this painting.”
May 22, 1967 “Sol LeWitt and a pack of Pall Mall.”
May 23, 1967 “This afternoon Dan Graham dropped a letter into the mailbox at the corner of Eldridge and Grand Streets in New York.”
Nov. 28, 1967 “My letter from Ray Johnson was postmarked somewhere in New York City this afternoon.”
Mar. 29, 1968 “Roy Lichtenstein was wearing a red sweater this evening.”
On’s particular interests and their poignancy are revealed:
Feb. 14, 1967 “Da Vinci's manuscripts which were produced between 1491 and 1505.”
Feb. 22, 1967 “Laughter from beyond space.”
Jan. 7. 1970 “An extraordinary candy-stripe pattern has been found on a microscopic scale, in some lunar rocks.”
Jan. 23, 1970 “A death mask stolen, of James Joyce.”
Mar. 30, 1972 “A party of 28 Chinese table-tennis players in Ottawa, Canada.”
Many of the subtitles resound all these years later, and probably always will, but one stands out for all time:
Dec. 3, 1966 “A baby crying through history.”
Another catalogue that I had when we first met is from a project in which On participated, “18 Paris IV. 70,” initiated by the critic Michel Claura, comprising three consecutive parts. The invited artists were asked, over a brief period, to make, reconsider, and finalize a proposal, either changing or keeping their initial response, and On sent three telegrams. Considering the high Conceptualism of that time, On’s contribution is all the more startling.
The first telegram stated: “I AM NOT GOING TO COMMIT SUICIDE–DON'T WORRY.”
This was followed by: “I AM NOT GOING TO COMMIT SUICIDE–WORRY.”
And the final message: “I AM GOING TO SLEEP–FORGET IT.”
The first made sense, in its reassurance that a person would not end his life. The second turned this upside down, for why would someone elicit concern having decided against such a drastic act? The third turns both on end in its matter-of-fact declaration to simply go to bed, advising the recipient to dismiss something he could not have put out of his thoughts so casually. As each telegram was delivered, Michel Claura must have grown increasingly perplexed. I’ve been thinking about those messages for thirty years now, and I still have no idea what On may have had in mind.
That day in 1991 when Katia Perlstein brought me to meet On, this is probably what I most wanted to ask him about, but I certainly did not. I was there for a specific reason, and since we had never met before I was on my best behavior. With an artist as guarded as On, or so I thought, you can’t expect him to begin revealing his secrets from the very first. Over the years, as we would get together now and then, particularly as we worked on the show, “Pictures of the Real World (In Real Time)” in ’94, he would tell me stories about the ways in which various aspects of his work had begun and were brought to a close, and he told them with little or no prompting on my part. These stories helped me to understand the coincidental nature of much of his work: that an art which was deliberate in its making and continued investigation often had quixotic or random points of arrival and departure. You could say the same of a life.
As we sat and talked that first afternoon, I recall that he smoked one cigarette after another. At one point there was a long gray ash dangling at the end of his cigarette which seemed, at any moment, about to collapse under the weight of its fragile composition. I thought: This is an image of time. And just as it was about to drop of its own accord, without taking any notice, On tapped lightly and ashes fell into the ashtray on the low table between us.
Early one morning this past July, a friend came into the kitchen and asked me if I had heard that On Kawara had died. I hadn’t and was taken by surprise. Everything was suddenly still and, suspended in the words just spoken, I was suddenly lost in that clarity of simultaneous comprehension and disbelief. Reflecting on the moment later, it occurred to me that this wasn’t an image of time but of consciousness itself, which is ultimately the only way to grasp the meaning and depth of On’s life and work.
A final subtitle comes to mind:
July 25, 1966 “I make love to the days.”
Bob Nickas is a critic and curator based in New York.
DEAR ON KAWARA
THERE IS AN ANECDOTE THAT WHEN DUKE ELLINGTON WAS ASKED FOR A DEFINITION OF A MUSICIAN (ARTIST) HE REPLIED:
A PERSON WHO PRACTICES EVERY DAY
Lawrence Weiner is an artist based in New York.
TO SPEAK OF THE WORK OF On Kawara is, in certain respects, to speak of the life—and now, of the death. The artist’s passing deepens an absence that some might say was already there, for he spent the last half century strategically avoiding the public eye. The nature of his art is fairly well known, although it is generally seen in small, refined doses, and its visibility comes and goes: But for an ongoing installation of paintings at Dia:Beacon, the work is shown sporadically in galleries and museums and otherwise can be hard to find.
Kawara was a young star of the postwar Tokyo avant-garde, but he came to consider his early work—precise post-Surrealist representations of bodies (and body parts) floating through “bathroom” and “warehouse” spaces—to be a closed book. In essays he wrote for the Japanese art press during the 1950s, his frustration with the limitations of that work (and much of the new art that surrounded him in Japan) is clear. In 1964, after a period of travel, first to Mexico City and then Paris, Kawara settled in New York, where his friends and acquaintances came to include practitioners of Conceptual art. There he reinvented himself. In 1966, his work began to take a form that would never change. Several categories emerged, including calendars, maps, and lists or inventories, as well as personal communications in the form of tourist postcards and telegrams, each bearing the same message: respectively, I GOT UP AT (produced with a rubber stamp and followed by the time at which said event transpired) and I AM STILL ALIVE. Such works are markers that designate little more—yet nothing less—than Kawara’s very being in the world. At the heart of this practice lies painting: the “Today” series, consisting of paintings inscribed in white acrylic paint against a monochrome ground solely with the date on which the work was made. The palette (variants of very dark gray, blue, and red) and the range of dimensions were predetermined and strict, although colors were hand mixed, and the paintings were produced according to a quasi-rote process supported by fastidious technique. A painting was finished in the course of a given day, or it was destroyed. On some days, two, and very occasionally three were made. Many are stored in hand-formed boxes lined with a cutting from the day’s press.
These terms are simple enough on their face. Yet, in attempting to compose a responsible account of Kawara’s work, it is difficult to be concise. The Kawara system is a superbly rarefied, gamelike construction nesting within the confines—the coordinates—of the everyday. Kawara the artist is author, subject, and object of scrutiny, yet over the course of decades, Kawara the man remained deliberately unrevealed. The subjectivity of the work is explicit, but its personal content consists exclusively of a schematic account of the artist’s whereabouts. This anonymity is critical to the abstract dimension of the work’s systemic form. Kawara’s various applications of the daily press (cuttings pasted inside of a painting’s storage box or mounted on notebook pages for the eighteen three-ring binders that comprise the series called “I Read”) served to assimilate the newspaper’s representation of the events of the world to the habits of daily life. The artist’s travels subjected the temporal predictability of the system to the variable of place; Kawara’s movements—he made paintings in over 130 cities, with the date composed in the language of the city in question—exhibit the restless momentum of quasinomadic travel.
The rhythm of the passing days, which structures the work, also establishes a kind of chronological momentum, one that substitutes for anything like formal or stylistic “development.” Yet the work One Million Years, begun in 1969, which consists of two sets of binders with lists of numbers (“One Million Years Past” and “One Million Years Future”) and a public reading that often coincides with an exhibition of Kawara’s other work, sets the day-to-day nature of his activity, which might be said to amount to so much record-keeping, into an unmovable frame of vast, nonhistorical time.
In preparing a forthcoming exhibition of Kawara’s work for the Guggenheim Museum in New York, I worked with the artist. Despite his warm cooperation, he remained an elusive figure. Our familiarity was distant—as much a case of affection and respect, even reverence, on my part as anything else. But this pull between closeness and distance is of a piece with one’s sensation of the work’s power. The genius of Kawara’s practice is that its existentialism is virtually nonrhetorical, a pure expression of the system as game. Yet these means expose a paradox: The everyday, both in personal and in world-historical terms, can be minutely and tenaciously recorded, yet given the inevitability of death, the significance of that which is mundane can still appear to be unfathomable and, perhaps some days more than others, undeniably absurd. I say that, of course, in the wake—and under the influence—of the artist’s unexpected departure. Kawara would never have openly confirmed or denied such a response to his work. We may see fit to believe that the art possesses far-reaching implications, but claims regarding exactly how or why are strictly ours to make. For Kawara, while the rules of his practice were rigorous, and making the work closely resembled an act of meditation, aesthetic activity itself was wholly without pretense. Never was gravity more lightly borne.
Jeffrey Weiss is senior curator at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York and an adjunct professor of fine arts at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts.
BY THE TIME Tommy Ramone (née Erdelyi) died, his band, which came whipping out of the low, brick-walled canyons of Queens in 1974, had long since been canonized into oblivion, becoming the province of Urban Outfitter–clad interns (“Ramones Tee in Charcoal . . . perfect for channeling your inner rock god”) whose knowledge of the band’s oeuvre might well be limited to the appearance of “Blitzkrieg Bop” in a Coppertone ad. After his death, Erdelyi was rightly eulogized everywhere from Vogue to the New York Times. He had become a big deal. But the drummer/producer of one of the world’s most influential bands—and arguably its single most influential punk band—died as he lived: a champion of the working-class rocker and of the DIY ethic. In honor of that laudable spirit, here are songs by six of the thousands of Ramones-influenced bands heating up tiny venues around the world today.
The Live Ones (NYC), “Got What You Wanted”
Led by drummer/front man/wild man “Mad” Mike Czekaj, this trio boasts a profound Ramones influence evident not only in their fast, catchy one-four-five rock-candy tunes, but in their approach to their craft: Both bands soldiered on for years with zero regard for trend. In a few more years, the Connecticut-born Czekaj will have marched farther than the band that inspired him: His high school band the Stratford Survivors opened for the Ramones in 1978.
M.O.T.O. (New Hampshire), “It Tastes Just Like a Milkshake”
M.O.T.O., aka Masters of the Obvious, is the brainchild of New Orleans native Paul Caporino, who has been writing songs under the moniker since 1981. For the last handful of years, he’s traveled solo from bar to basement to backyard in a beat-up Toyota the color of his hair (silver), delivering poppy, Ramones-ish three-chord classics such as “Crystallize My Penis” and “I Hate My Fucking Job,” to hordes of kids, or just the bartender if he has to, backed by pickup bands comprised of the many musician friends he’s made over the decades.
Criminal Damage (Portland, OR), “Call of Death”
This Pacific Northwest band is heavily influenced by British street punk (Cock Sparrer, Sham 69) of the same era in which the Ramones came up, and occasionally wields the feedbacky whine of mid-period Hüsker Dü, but the crunchy guitars are pure Rocket to Russia. Though the vocals are gruffer/tougher, Crim Dam (as they are affectionately known) can’t stay away from the anthem—another thing they have in common with their predecessors.
Imperial Leather (Stockholm), “We Will Never Die”
This Swedish band lifted their name from a British soap punks use to spike their hair, and their front woman from a long-running NYC band named after an arachnid and what a friend of mine once delicately referred to as “a lady’s downstairs.” They released a spate of records on legendary St. Paul, MN, crust label Profane Existence in the late oughts and may or may not still be going: Regardless, their UK-style punk’n’roll is stripped down à la early Ramones, albeit nowhere near as sweet.
The Biters (Atlanta), “Indigo”
The sort of band whose members might take a dump in the restroom sink at a Waffle House, never dreaming that twenty years down the road they might find themselves employed there and cleaning up after the next generation of hellions. The selected track finds them channeling Phil-Spector-wall-of-sound-era Ramones such as “Danny Says,” which may be blasphemous to mention in a Tommy Ramone tribute, but I like to think he wouldn’t have cared.
Call of the Wild (NYC), “Autobahn”
The fierce new-wave guitar solos that are occasionally scrawled all over the band’s tracks, and the almost gargled-sounding vocals only add to the anarchic power of this band’s attack, which owes much in its four-on-the-floor style to its leather-and-denim clad forefathers.
Polly Watson is a musician, editor, and writer based in New York.
WHEN I MOVED to New York in 1994, I was introduced to Lella and Massimo by a mutual friend, photographer Nini Mulas. The year before, I had worked closely with Nini for over a month, elbow to elbow, 24/7, preparing an issue of Abitare on Los Angeles. Nini was one of the Vignellis’ most intimate friends. It goes without saying that Nini and Lella—both true art Amazons—did not mince words when it came to giving me frank and fierce advice on how to behave as a newcomer in New York—what to wear, how to behave 9 to 5, how to behave 7 to midnight and beyond, which art galleries to visit, where not to go, best and worst architects, best and worst designers, whom to invite for lunch and whom for drinks. . . . They were loving but also authoritative and definitive and impossibly stylish, dressed in black and gray and navy (the latter only occasionally). Massimo shared their chromatic penchants but liked to talk about beauty and design rather than about survival in New York. He was smiling, suave, and forgiving—at least so he was at home, over a dinner of risotto with Lella and his son Luca.
I was soon presented with a different side of Massimo at a symposium on graphic design organized by Illinois Institute of Technology professor Sharon Poggenpohl in Chicago. There, I had a chance to witness live one of Massimo’s famous diatribes denouncing the ravages that early digital designers—Emigre’s Zuzana Licko and Rudy VanderLans in particular, who created their own fonts on newly introduced Mac computers—had inflicted upon our field. He sure had strong opinions—and very, very strong words—for these young experimental designers. And he did not change his opinions easily. The querelle continued for many years, until it became the stuff of lore. Of course, time brought perspective and, movingly, Licko and VanderLans wrote Massimo a goodbye letter in which they said that “over time, we have come to realize that your critique was probably one of the most valuable replies to our work,” as reported by Julie Lasky in the New York Times.
MoMA and the Vignellis have had a close relationship for decades, through three generations of curators. To celebrate Massimo’s life, we recently installed one of our proudest acquisitions—a selection of their work for the New York subway system—accompanied by a post on the MoMA blog. The famous 1970 New York Subway Map sits front and center, just as it sits high among the great masterpieces of graphic-design history. Just like Harry Beck’s much earlier map of the London Underground, it was filled with rectifications and rationalizations that were a testament to Massimo’s belief in the universal communicative power of modernism—and of his faith in 90- and 45-degree angles. The waterways were light brown. Places were not where they should be. The map was too much: too straight, too brutal. Even New Yorkers could not cope with it (the map was retired in 1979 and replaced with one that was still abstract but less angular and conceptual), and perhaps they were right. Like a botched first-series stamp, it was a fundamental step towards final success, and it is a rare, precious artifact. It has now been brought back by the MTA—New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority—in their Weekender website, which helps people navigate the system in the days when most maintenance interruptions are scheduled. Here, its extraordinary pointedness and edge offer the perfect platform for a new digital interactivity. After all, there is poetic justice about the fact that the design of someone who was, at first, such a traditionalist turns out to be so well suited to an online format.
Massimo Vignelli’s work transcends all of the boundaries of graphic design—as it transcends those of architecture, design, and communication, for that matter. Only a few designers in history have achieved a level of influence that makes them, very simply, indispensable. I add my voice to the choir and ask, could you think of a world without Massimo’s contributions? So much of it would be visually mute, or at least dumb. And communication design would be much worse off, having missed the productive and polemical energy it gained from arguing against this giant modernist father. I am sad Massimo Vignelli has died, but more than anything, I am so glad he has lived.
Paola Antonelli is the senior curator of the department of architecture and design at the Museum of Modern Art, New York City.
I WITNESSED a miracle. On November 22, 2013, Berkeley held the last symposium in honor of James Cahill to be given during his lifetime. I was invited to speak alongside two of Cahill’s former students, now all eminent scholars in the field: Richard Vinograd (Stanford) and Patricia Berger (Berkeley). The person who crashed the party was the honoree himself. Before the symposium started, Cahill showed up in a wheelchair, attended by his caretaker. With his unflagging vigor, he had largely mocked the ruthless law of nature throughout his retirement years. But in the final months of his life, Father Time finally caught up with him. I greeted him, and it was only after I pronounced my name loudly that he recognized me. Never, however, count Cahill out. He surprised the organizers with a modest proposal: He wished to present. And present he did. The wheelchair-bound man, advanced in age and now cognitively struggling to recognize faces, spoke in his tenor voice, crisp, sharp, uncluttered, with an eloquence that was unadulterated vintage Cahillian. What I witnessed was a clinical case of how a great mind works. Other cognitive faculties tethered to his large physical frame had begun to forsake him. However, the robust engine driving a distinct part of his mind, fueled and loaded with a lifetime dedication to Chinese art, throbbed on, unimpaired. The voice that filled the hall came across as a disembodied, soaring spirit, unburdened by the flailing body, as if it had emanated from the recorded tape of one of the lectures Cahill had delivered on so many occasions. That mind attached to Chinese art lives on. It is still with us, alive.
It was fitting that on this occasion Cahill spoke on seventeenth-century Chinese topographic paintings. His magisterial trilogy on Chinese painting ends with the seventeenth century. The Norton Lecture he once delivered at Harvard also focuses on this dynamic period, a subject that had consumed a good part of his intellectual energy. The master narrative he fashioned therein is a tale of two impulses: a literati mode long on self-organizing forms and short on observation-derived verisimilitude, and a professional mode the other way around. The literati won. It was largely due to Cahill and his generation of scholars that the Western readers learned and bought into that story. However, wary of seeing his master plot hardening into an overweening orthodoxy that overwhelmed other impulses, Cahill sought to erode the foundation of the edifice he had successfully built by deflating the loftiness of the literati ideal, weighing in on the losing side of his plotline, and calling attention to the vitality and validity of the professional craftsmanship and practice. The topographic illusionism of garden paintings and well-wrought portraits of female beauty executed in the professional mode preoccupied him in his final years. So it was that he gave his last lecture on topographic paintings of country estates. Later Cahill took on early Cahill. We thus see the self-renewal of a great mind capable of exalting both sides of the story. It is a win-win situation. Cahill shall be at peace with himself in his afterlife: He remains a winner, as always.
Eugene Wang is the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller professor of Asian art at Harvard University.