Who are the most important artists of the 20th Century? If you're a Western man of a certain generation you might say Joseph Beuys and Andy Warhol. This baby boomer's list would start with On Kawara.

I first came across On Kawara's work in 1992. Four Date Paintings memorialising individual days in one room; and ten volumes listing a million years of typed dates (into the future) in another. It moved me to my mortal core. That's why I believe you, dear reader, can trust this project. I also like to think it comes from a place of distilled respect, but you can judge that for yourself.

For over ten years, every single day, On Kawara sent out a postcard to two friends or colleagues telling them what time he'd got up; he drew a map of where he'd gone in whatever place he was in; and he made a list of the people he'd met. Nothing else. He was a deeply private individual, compelled to say so much (he was aware he was alive; he was conscious to the nth degree; he was moving around and meeting others) and no more: but enough for a biographer intent on fleshing out the work and the personality behind it all. This is the story of an artist trying to get the very most from his existence, by a writer intent on achieving much the same.

From the beginning of his Date Painting, On Kawara did not allow any photographs of himself to circulate in the public realm, fearing that they might distract from his work. An exception is the photo below:

8bBxiiPNQLGcGl6ZZMeqtQ_thumb_d270 Reproduced thanks to the understanding of the One Million Years Foundation.

We know the photo was taken by On Kawara's partner, Hiroko, as 'HIROKO HIRAOKA' is the only name on that day's 'I MET' list. And we know it was taken inside a Holiday Inn, Houston, Texas, as that information is stamped, along with 'I GOT UP AT 8.49 A.M.', on the postcard On Kawara sent that day to fellow conceptual artist, John Baldessari. What else do we know? According to his own hand-made calendar of the 20th Century, this was the 1,167th time he had made a Date Painting, in the 15,349th day of his life. The picture is at the same time dated (in more ways than one) and timeless. If it was placed alongside a reproduction of Leonardo Da Vinci's Mona Lisa, painted 500 years ago, an onlooker might sigh and say: 'Ah, the enigmatic smile'. If, in 500 years time, the same juxtaposition was created, I believe the onlooker would nod and suggest about the previously ignored photo: 'The Time Artist'.

I should say that almost all the hundreds of images used in this second version of this 'book' are of On Kawara's work, which are included through the continuing open-mindedness of One Million Years Foundation, On Kawara's estate.

Duncan McLaren

MAY 15, 2024

To make a hole in a day as a nap  (On Kawara's subtitle to his Date Painting of DEC. 31, 1966)
To travel down that hole to the Big Bang (Lines added by me on OCT. 23, 2023)
To wake up as if for the first time
At one with the universe