GAME ON (13)



Today is February 1, 2023. Last month I had a rewarding correspondence with Nobu Fukui, one of On Kawara's closest Japanese friends in the period covered by 'I GOT UP', 'I WENT' and 'I MET', that's to say up until 1979. I intend to report the exchange in full elsewhere, but here I am going to tease out the claim that On used plastic templates while making his Date Paintings. This came as news to me. I believe it comes as news to Art History.

While telling me that On Kawara and Hiroko used to come to the the loft of Nobu and Miyuki Fukui at 53 Greene Street to play mah-jongg, On being 'by far the best player' and Hiroko also being 'excellent' at the game, Nobu added: 'We started in the early evening, and On normally brought a painted canvas with the date pencilled out, all he had to do was to paint. Sometimes he came with a blank canvas, painted the canvas and played the game while the paint was getting dry. He used a set of plastic templates to draw dates with pencil. I didn't know, but I learned later that somehow he kept this a secret. Apparently he wanted the public to believe he was drawing freehand.'

The email also dealt with one or two other questions, which I'll come back to. Nobu concluded: 'I'll try my best to be as accurate as possible, but obviously my memories are not perfect. So before you go public with my info you should try to verify them if you can.'

I replied straight away: 'Of course, the big shock in your email was the information that On Kawara used plastic templates. As you suggest, I won’t just accept this as true, but I will test it out as a hypothesis. On would have needed eight different sizes of templates, for his A to H Dates. And the ‘font' changed over time, so it should be apparent when he changed from one plastic template to another. I think if I was to look closely at his size A canvases and his size B canvases, for a few sample years, I might be able to tell whether templates were being used or not. If there is a slow transition from one ‘font' to another (in so far as they were different fonts) then I should spot that.

It would be a good idea for me to look at the size H canvases, the size he used for the Apollo 11 canvases in 1971 and then for eight more canvases made in 1978, 1982 and 1984. If the shape of the letters seems to be exactly the same, then that would point towards a template being used. That is, if the general look of the smaller canvases migrated over the same period that the size H ones didn't. No, it won’t absolutely prove anything, but that’s probably where I’ll start. With that test.

Certainly, it's true that during the several occasions that On documented his Date Painting process with a series of still photographs, usually of size B Dates, there was never any sign of templates on the desk, whereas a ruler is often there. I think if I study these stills I will be able to say if templates were used or not.

I wonder how much difference it makes. It's known that he used a ruler, so is there that much difference between a ruler and a template/stencil? And he didn’t make statements about his technical practise.

I think if he was trying to deceive the public, then that would come out in other aspects of his practice. I haven’t come across any such deceptions. Everything hangs together and consolidates the authenticity of the work (of I GOT UP, I WENT and I MET in particular).

I think it would make the whole Date Painting process a bit quicker, but what would make it a lot quicker is if he used the stencils again when painting. That’s where tiny mistakes are likely to happen if you don’t have a hard edge to control the movement of the brush. So that is also what I must look out for.

I can already see that in a photo taken of MAR.30,1997, when the pencilled figures were in the process of being infilled, the white paint has gone over the line at the bottom of the A. That wouldn’t have happened if he’d been using a stencil.'

Nobu then responded, again straight away: 'About the template, I saw different sizes of them neatly stored in a shallow cardboard box. I never saw him using stencils when he was painting. He used a fine sable brush to paint dates with white acrylic paint freehand.'

That is an important distinction. I had been thinking of the words template and stencil as synonymous. Not so. A template is a physical object that one can draw around. A stencil is a hole in a plastic sheet that one can paint within. In On's case a template was used to standardise the pencil work, not a stencil to control the brush work.

In a separate email, Nobu added: 'Thinking of On's paintings and templates last night, suddenly I remembered that on June 2, 1967, my 25th birthday, I borrowed On's templates and painted the date on an orange background, upside down and backwards. It was painted on a 24 x 36 inches canvas I made myself. I couldn't have done it without his templates. I went back to Japan later that year, and stayed there for about a year. I was living alone in the same building as Soroku Toyoshima and his wife lived, 61 Lispenard St. then. It was a small loft building, and I occupied the top two floors above their floor. Soroku agreed to keep my paintings till I came back. When I was moving my paintings downstairs, On and Hiroko stopped by and offered to keep my birthday painting for me till I came back. That was the last time I saw the painting, On never gave it back to me, and I never asked for it. I assume that the painting was destroyed. I'll ask Hiroko about it if and when I see her next time.'

It seems to me that this email was full of extraordinary information and that it would take me a while to assimilate it all. Nevertheless, I replied swiftly:

Dear Nobu,

I GOT UP AT 8.51A.M.

It was just after midnight when I opened up your mail and I told myself that I would get up early and reply to it. This is as early as I could make it.

I already know how you spent your 12th birthday, June 2 1954, thanks to your book, 'The Tama River'. ‘Harumi' had just died in tragic circumstances and you didn't want to go to school. Being clobbered by your teacher didn’t help, but your family were supportive and your father did a wise thing in taking you to that prospective English Teacher. That was the day you spotted the cover of Faulkner’s 'The Sound and the Fury' and were given an oil painting set which you wouldn’t open on the day itself. But you very much would later.

Okay, skip forward 13 years. Brilliant idea to paint your own Date on an orange backdrop, upside down and backwards! As you say, you wouldn’t have been able to do it without the template. Or at least it would have taken you all day, some birthday present to yourself!

I hope that painting wasn’t destroyed and that you get it back from Hiroko. Million Years Foundation (wherever that is) must have a loft full of On's secrets and valuables. For a start, there is the log book that On kept to record who got postcards and where they were sent to. And I expect that there is a set of templates in a shallow cardboard box.

Yesterday, before I got your latest email, I had a close look at the little book that records in a series of 30 photos the making of JUNE 9, 1991. A pencil, ruler and plastic triangle are in the key shots, though the triangle is not in the pic below. No template letters, because I don’t think they were used in the sketching of this particular date.

0sxb67c0tnmcheftqqnfra_thumb_d7ac Reproduced with the forbearance, I hope, of the copyright holder, Henning Weidemann.

On has marked some points in the mid-line between the parallel lines top and bottom of his characters. In drawing the E and the N, he’s drawn a vertical line through the letters, in order to link key nodes in the letter, which he wouldn’t do if he was using a template. And the way the 9 is drawn shows that he’s drawn a circle and used that structure to complete the number.

I also have images of 27 October 1990, which was made in some studio On had access to in Rome (see below). He hasn’t taken much trouble with the sketch (it’s not accurate top left of the first O, for example. The circle of the first 9 has got a lot of unnecessary extra pencil work as if On had been correcting himself.

kozsc1pytwqdpyrbprgnqa_thumb_ea30 All this tells me is that he doesn’t seem to have used a template on these recorded occasions from the 1990s. Obviously he did use a template some of the time, as you’ve told me he did and I believe you.

I suppose it’s his rules. As we know, he did take these rules very seriously, otherwise the work meant nothing. But that he drew the characters freehand, with the help of just a ruler and set square, was not a rule as such as far as he was concerned.


So that was my first reaction to the news from Nobu Fukui that On Kawara used a template to produce his Date Paintings. Obviously I was not going to leave it there. Obviously, I was going to recreate Nobu's one-and-only Date Painting at some stage, just for starters:


I wonder if this creation can be read as an undermining of On Kawara's practice. Orange is a colour that On never used. But for no good reason, Nobu might be suggesting. And the registering of time with arbitrary marks, is that not what Nobu's upside down and back-to-front letters and numbers are suggesting - the arbitrariness of it all?

I wonder if Nobu had permission to borrow On's templates. If he didn't, then perhaps On felt entitled to confiscate Nobu Fukui's Date. After all, it was an ambitious enterprise he was involved in, which was just getting underway. On understood his own rules and his own process. He didn't want the public to jump to false conclusions, and he may have felt that Nobu's Date Painting was liable to encourage exactly that. So JUNE 2,1977 was put away, never to be seen again.

On Kawara's 'Journal' for June, 1967, shows that he made B-size paintings on June 1 and June 4. Nothing on June 2. But here's the thing: by June 2, On Kawara had template plastic letters of various sizes. To what extent is it possible to work out exactly when he used them to draw his letters? Wonderful! An excuse to look really closely at On Kawara's Date Paintings from January 1966 to June 1967.

Luckily, there is a book called ON KAWARA: 1966 which is well-illustrated. It was published in 2015, the years after On Kawara's death. But I suspect it was prepared in parallel with the ON KAWARA: SILENCE exhibition, and On was involved in the conception of both. Mind you, I don't think On Kawara, nearing the end of his life, had decided to give away any more of his secrets. But I suspect that all the information about his process is out there in the public realm, however much hidden and coded.


On Kawara painted thirteen Dates in January 1966, all size A or a long variation of size A. Here is the third one:

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

Note the thin, elongated characters, well spaced out. Note the gaps before and after the day of the month. Note also the curves on the bottom of the figure 9 and the top of the figure 6. They were there from the beginning, but by the end of the month, On had straightened these out. Below is a size A+ Date, one of only five he ever made, all in January or February of 1966. The artist was feeling his way. But I can imagine the effort of making all these letters might have put the idea of templates into his mind, if it hadn't been there already!

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

There are a few design features to point out. The 5. On would always do his number 5 in this way, with the lower jaw (if anthropomorphisation of the letters is allowed) jutting out, though the slope of the number would vary. The 2. As we'll see, the toe of the 2 is in front of the nose of the 2, in these first months, though that is only just the case in this example.


Sixteen Dates painted in this month. I will illustrate a couple of them.

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

These are still size A paintings, size B doesn't come along until April. The 5 (above) is at a jauntier angle that the 5 in JANUARY 25, 1966. And the toe of the 2 (below) is distinctly further forward relative to the nose. Also the tops of the 66 in FEB.24 are at a shallower angle to those in the 66 of FEB. 5.

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

We can be sure that On Kawara was not using templates at this stage in his development. That 2 alone is enough to tell us that.


On Kawara painted twenty-three Dates in March, all size A. Interesting that he used a curve on the number 7. That wasn't there in FEBRUARY, 7, 1966.

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

Also, the artist was not leaving as much clear space between the month abbreviation and the day of the month, nor between the day of the month and the year. He was letting the punctuation marks do their work. All the characters are pushed together so that the line of marks has an equal density about it.

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


In April, On painted twenty Dates, including his first three at size B (APR. 12, 13 and 28) and his first one at size E (APR.30). He also painted two red Dates (APR.14 and 16).

Now, size E is more or less the same size as Nobu Fukui painted on June 2, 1967 (26" x 36" as opposed to 24" x 36") so this should be worth scrutinising. Unfortunately, this Date is not reproduced anywhere that I know of. But let's see what we have got.

April 12 and 13 were the two canvases first to be painted at size B. That is, not 8"x10" but 10"x13".

I'm going to assume that On began by drawing two parallel horizontal lines in the middle of his canvas, which certainly became his technique. The distance apart, the height of the characters, would be as for the size A paintings multiplied by 10 and divided by eight, which is 1.25. And the width of each letter would be as for in the size A paintings, multiplied by 13 and divided by ten, which is 1.3. Which means that the width of the white lines themselves would be multiplied by something between 1.25 and 1.3.

And for the first time, On made the circular parts of the 6 and the 9 bigger.

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

Though having said that, looking back at March dates, there are incipient signs of his wanting to increase the circular parts of the 6 and the 9.

In any case, when he reverted to size A (see below), he preserved this larger circle element.

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

Though of course the main thing about April 14 (and 16) is that it represents the artist's first use of red for the background colour. In other words, On Kawara was still experimenting with certain aspects of his decision-making (by no means all, Nobu Fukui would say). The look of On's Dates was still evolving. Slowly evolving.

The first thing you might notice about APR.16 is its red colour. The first thing I do notice about it is that On has decided to make the circles on his sixes and nines even bigger. So he is still not using a regularising template. Unless APR.16 was his first use of such a template, allowing the size E of APR. 30 to be made.

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

Below is APR.20. Back to the background colour that he started with. This time he has slightly thickened the characters.

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

Throughout April On stuck to the 'similar-density' look that he worked towards in March, and developed the more bulbous numbers, seemingly helped by the jump to doing size B letters.

I was mistaken about the E-sized APR.30 not being reproduced anywhere. It is on the left edge of a photograph that On Kawara took of his studio at 405 East 13th Street. How do you get from a size A painting to a size E painting? Well, by drawing two parallel lines, the distance between the lines of the size A painting multiplied by 24 and divided by eight. And the width of the letters? As for the size A Dates but multiplied by 36 and divided by ten. There is more of a difference between a multiplier of 3 and 3.6, so it's possible that a slight shifting in shape might be introduced through this process of enlargement.

Having said that, On painted a size B as well as a size E on April 30. So perhaps he did his multiplying from the 10 x 13 to the 24 x 36. That's multipliers of 2.4 and 2.77. A better match.

Reproduced with the forbearance, I hope, of the copyright holders, On Kawara Studio and David Zwirner, New York.

In any case, APR.30, 1966, size E, does look bit odd. The 3 doesn't seem to belong to the same set of numbers as the 6. The two 6s are galloping off across the room. Like APR.20, the top of the number 6 is extended and at shallow angle, going past the end of the bottom circle. No template was used in the painting of this Date, I would suggest. Though perhaps it was in painting this first size E Date that On Kawara realised that templates might be of assistance.

Could anything be more exciting as we investigate where the Date artist went to in the rest of the year?


In the merry month of May, On Kawara painted 25 Dates, his highest monthly figure yet. And what's more he had made a move from size A to size B, in that nineteen B-sized Dates were made, and only five A-sized. And again, late in the month, there was a single size E painting made. You can see MAY 26, 1966 parked beside APR.30 in the above studio shot. The figure 6 is no longer leaning so far forward. It is no longer bolting across the room.

The three Dates reproduced in On Kawara: 1966 are all sized B:

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

It seems to me that things are settling down. On may be thinking of investing in a set of templates. He may even have made that move already. Let's try and keep our minds open as we carry on with this exercise in 'hunt the stencil'.


The above studio photo tells us that On Kawara painted at least 5 size E Dates in June, 1966. What does the Journal tell us? Twenty-two Dates in all. 11 x B, 5 x E and 6 x A. In other words, On has now got three different sized Dates built into his repertoire. Do they look the same? Here are three size E followed by two size B: fzmxgra8tno2hfheorswtq_thumb_ea69
Reproduced thanks to the understanding of the One Million Years Foundation.
Reproduced thanks to the understanding of the One Million Years Foundation.
Reproduced thanks to the understanding of the One Million Years Foundation.
Reproduced thanks to the understanding of the One Million Years Foundation.

The immediately above image is a poor repro from a different source. The rest are from On Kawara: 1966.

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

Looks great to me. Either On has got this down to a finely tuned vision, or he is using a template. There seems no difference between the shape of the letters in size B and size E. But we still need to keep our eyes open for that kind of systematic variation or for any further gradual evolution.


On painted twenty-three Dates in July. Those being: 7 size A; 8 size B; 7 size E and 1 size F. In other words, he painted several examples of the three sizes he had become familiar with, and tried his hand at a single bigger painting.

Size B:

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

Size B:

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

Size A, two in the same day. He had first done two Dates on April 30, with a size E and a size A. Five times he had done a size A and a size B on the same day in May, '66. Testing his skill?

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

Below is the size F painting, the first On had done of that size, 41" by 56.5". He had done two size E painting immediately before this (JULY 11 and 14), and would do two more immediately after (JULY 21 and 22) so perhaps he used size E as the base size. 41 divided by 24 = 1.7 and 56.5 divided by 36 = 1.57.

Reproduced with the forbearance, I hope, of the copyright holders, On Kawara Studio and David Zwirner, New York.

As you can see, this painting was given pride of place in On's studio, the room at the end of his enormous loft. Perhaps because its subtitle was 'Gemini 10' in other words it commemorated a space mission. Now because it was a July date, and Apollo 11 was three years later, this is a good opportunity to look ahead to see what the Dates looked like after three more years of development:

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

The above painting was the first On made at size H, his biggest size, 61" by 89". I think it would have been difficult to make an accurate character of this size without using templates. I know from experience it is easy enough to make an accurate curve if the painting you are making is on a size A or B canvas. Really, simply by measuring and marking the top and bottom, left and right points of a circle, then one can infil the rest, and repeat for the inner circle. Nor do I recall having problems doing that on the few occasions I've made a size D Date. However, I can imagine that technique wouldn't work as well if the curves and circles one was attempting were any larger.

Yet clearly if On was using templates then it wasn't part of the same template set he had (if he had one) in July, 1966. The circular parts of the 6 and the 9 are bigger than ever; the J has a longer, flatter foot.

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

And there I must leave it for today.

Or, rather, here I will leave it.


This will prove to be a two- or three-day text. No point in rushing it. I must keep going, throughout 1966, one month at a time.


On painted sixteen Dates in August. 1 of A; 12 of B; 1 of E and 1 of the new size of C.

Here is the size E:

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

And below is one of the new size C:

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

Stylistically, these seem the same, with no development from June and July.


A total of 21 Dates were made in September, a month where something strange happened. Nothing strange about 5 x A; 12 x B; 3 x C and 1 x D. But on September 23, On Kawara produced a giant date.

Reproduced with the forbearance, I hope, of the copyright holders, On Kawara Studio and David Zwirner, New York.

Those July Dates it is surrounded by at ground level are all size E. That is, they are 26" high. I calculate the giant painting to be 3.2 times taller. That is 83" tall compared to the size H paintings that would be made in July 1969 that would be 61" tall. This painting was subsequently 'destroyed' because On didn't finish it on the day. Though clearly it survived long enough to be photographed.

I go into the logic of this painting's destruction elsewhere, that a Date Painting must be begun and finished on the day in question. And Nobu Fukui reports an occasion when On, playing mah-jongg at 53 Greene Street, had become distracted by a game and only finished the Date Painting just before midnight, according to the studio clock, and just after midnight, according to On's own wristwatch. But let me quote from Nobu's email, as it contains priceless, authentic detail:

'A few times he was losing the game and he didn't stop playing and could not finish the painting. On these occasions he removed the canvas and put it in a trash can. Once he was painting, and it was getting close to 12:00 midnight. His concentration and intensity was mind-boggling to some of us watching him. The clock I had in the living area in the loft struck midnight. "Congratulations!" I said, the painting looked perfect to me. He stood up and said: "No good! It's one minute past midnight." He was looking at this big wristwatch on his left hand. I said. "Come on, I was watching the clock and you finished at least 30 seconds before midnight." No, I only trust this watch, it's perfectly accurate. He said that if he doesn't follow his own rules strictly, his work becomes meaningless.'

Is that what I'm trying to do, in this search for a plastic template, render the master's work meaningless? I hope you can see that nothing could be further from the truth. I am endeavouring to show how complex and subtle his mastery was.

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

These (above and below) are both size B paintings. Note the slight elongation of the S. In fact one could say that the letters were not as bulky as the figures.

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

On September 27, 1966, I turned 9 years old. I can remember that birthday like it was yesterday. There was a huge package for me, far too big to go through the letterbox of 8 Townhill Road, Hamilton, Lanarkshire, Scotland. In fact, it was nearly too big for my mother to get it through the front door. It was addressed to me, and it was solemnly handed over in an undertone of astonishment. I unwrapped it and there was a giant painting that said 'SEPT. 20,1966'.

"I wonder why it's not the right date," said Mum, trying not to seem impressed. She didn't want me to get carried away.

"Well, it had to get all the way here from New York," said Dad, reasonable as ever.

I would have liked to have taken it up to my bedroom, even though the Date would have obscured all the double-page fold-outs of English and Scottish football teams that my brother and I had plastered over the long non-window wall. But it was too large to cope with turning into doorways, so it had to stand there in the hall. After a day or two, noticing that the bottom of it was being bumped by Mum's vacuum cleaner, I stood the painting on piles of Marvel comics. That's to say, Spider-Man, Daredevil and other full-colour superheroes that I read about and who I vaguely realised were based in New York.

Ha! - I've retrospectively given myself the same sort of present for my 9th birthday that Nobu Fukui actually gave to himself for his 25th. A Date Painting with style, attitude and the X factor.

Absolutely the best present I never had.


Twenty-two dates in all. 2 of A; 9 of B; 6 of C; 2 of D and 3 of E. No new sizes this month. The three I'm reproducing below are size C, D and E respectively. But I'm reproducing them all at the same size so that we can check for concordance:

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

They all look the same to me. No systematic differences. No accidental differences. As I've already said, either Kawara had got his technique mastered or he was using templates.

Here is how the paintings looked in the studio:

Reproduced with the forbearance, I hope, of the copyright holders, On Kawara Studio and David Zwirner, New York.


Nineteen Dates. 3 of A; 11 of B; 2 of C; 2 of D; and 1 of E.

Below is a D followed by a C.

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

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

It looks to me that the ends of the 9 and the 6s have got even shorter than they were. It's just marginal, but it suggests that templates were still not being used.


Last month of a year of tremendous achievement. 21 Dates painted. The distribution is not unlike November's. That's to say, 1 of A; 11 of B; 6 of C, 2 of D and 1of E. Since May, Dates at B-size had become the majority.

The On Kawara: 1966 book reproduces two of the size Bs and two of the size Cs. I will show them side by side in order to closely compare the figures 6 and 9.

Here are the size C Dates. Aren't the letter D's different? And I think the limbs on the 6s in the DEC 22 are marginally longer.

vtikbn3oqwcf0025cxioweoia_thumb_ea81.gx8ztlmbtiyrgisrj1jx002ba_thumb_ea80 Reproduced thanks to the understanding of the One Million Years Foundation.

And below are the size B Dates. These look identical (though the spacing is odd in DEC .9), and appear similar to DEC.4

jgjeqpicqnohrp3f5pkpja_thumb_ea82.y8xys8mdqcui4e6sktcrfq_thumb_ea7f Reproduced thanks to the understanding of the One Million Years Foundation.

Has there been evolution of the numbers 6 and 9 over those last months? Let's test for a couple of sizes. First, size B. Here is the stubby 9 and 6 of a December date, compared with a September Date.

y8xys8mdqcui4e6sktcrfq_thumb_ea7f-2.ookgocpmtze1auik075huq_thumb_ea78-2 Reproduced thanks to the understanding of the One Million Years Foundation.

Note that because there is an extra letter in the September Date, On has used slightly narrower letters for it. The E for example. And I think the ends of the 6 and 9 are very slightly longer in the September case. So it doesn't seem that a template was used for B size dates

Now let's compare the stubby-numbered 6s and 9 of the November size C with an August size C and an October size C.

3v8oy4aqqiwbzqkysz4upq_thumb_ea7e-2.mmqjikjotcakezcyn80025xwg_thumb_ea76-2 Reproduced thanks to the understanding of the One Million Years Foundation.

In the above case, the difference in the numbers is obvious. No templates for size C paintings!

In the below case the difference in the numbers is also clear. No templates for size C paintings for sure!

3v8oy4aqqiwbzqkysz4upq_thumb_ea7e-3.gsn002bnuv7r0025ss002b0025i0025xpn42a_thumb_ea7a-2 Reproduced thanks to the understanding of the One Million Years Foundation.

Take a bow, On Kawara of 1966! 241 Dates made without the use of templates. No wonder he installed a day-bed in his studio during the year. Any human being would have to be lying down between bouts of concentration. Take a nap, On Kawara of 1966!

Reproduced with the forbearance, I hope, of the copyright holders, On Kawara Studio and David Zwirner, New York.



I'm going to go about this year differently. There is no equivalent to On Kawara: 1966 focussing on 1967, so I've just had to go through all my books and the web, sourcing and reproducing what Dates I could.

I've a feeling this is when On commissioned a set of templates to be made. Either in January (I haven't seen a single January canvas, though he painted twenty) or February. It was in February of 1967 that On began to make cardboard boxes for the Date Paintings, and to have a cutting from the day's newspaper put in the box with the Date Painting. Retrospectively, boxes for 1966 Dates were made, but left empty of newspaper cutting.

It's possible that reviewing the whole year's work in his studio, he realised that his style of making letters and numbers had evolved, but that he was happy with where it had evolved to. I have got 6 size B paintings from 1967 that I am going to check. Though not this one, which is not shown sufficiently square-on.

rbxeyararnylbxlcpeithw_thumb_ea83 Tomas Laddaga viewing the Kawara installation, Dia: Beacon, New York, 2009.

Then three size C paintings that I'm going to check. Then one size D painting. As it happens, there are no reproductions that I can source of size A paintings. On did make size A paintings in 1967, including one on September 27, 1967. Another of the best birthday presents I never had. I asked Nobu Fukui if On sent him any I GOT UP Postcards or gave him any Date Paintings. This is what he told me:

'On sent me one postcard. I framed and showed it to him. Somehow he didn't like how it was framed, and never sent me another one. He gave me a DATE painting, but when Miyuki and I were separated, she took it and the postcard along with my whole art collection; prints by Lichtenstein, Jasper Johns, Frank Stella etc., and went back to Japan. I believe Miyuki sold everything to an art dealer in Japan.'

Nobu tells his story in a matter of fact way, but I sense there is much more going on beneath the surface that is not being said. Emotional stuff.

But back to 1967 and the 6 size B, 3 size C and 1 size D Date Painting that are in my gift to analyse:

liw8ezfjrrcdozsa6y00255zg_thumb_ea86.dgw1pgflti002bjvdkskazi1q_thumb_ea84 Reproduced thanks to the understanding of the One Million Years Foundation.

r002bbzogmlsqizuk6ahbhfgw_thumb_ea93.unadjustednonraw_thumb_ea90 Reproduced thanks to the understanding of the One Million Years Foundation.

6r7r4jmqruqv0rzbkav8uw_thumb_ea8d.ldbvkwbwrxeuguo0002bc1qsq_thumb_ea8b Reproduced thanks to the understanding of the One Million Years Foundation.

Oh wow! - I think that is a result. 1967: year of the template!

Anyway, let's not be hasty. Size C:

joyja1avshcj9zhkvjyb2q_thumb_ea85.unadjustednonraw_thumb_ea91 dmyd4rndt8afgavdmns50025g_thumb_ea88
Reproduced thanks to the understanding of the One Million Years Foundation.

As I say, 1967, year of the template. That is just beginning to sink in.

And finally, size D:

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

I can't see any differences between any letters or numbers in any of these nine dates. And in any case, Nobu Fukui told me that he borrowed On's template to make his birthday Date, size E, on JUNE 2, 1967. So the presumption must be that On Kawara did use a template at this time. I have demonstrated to my own satisfaction that he didn't use templates in 1966 or at certain other times.

I can guess that On went on using the template until he left for Mexico on MAR.31, 1968. But after that, Spanish was the language of where he was living and Dating, and the customary layout of the dates differed. An analysis of that can wait for another day.

But let's just see if On made use of the template again in order to do justice to the Apollo 11 Moon Landing. Let me juxtapose JULY 4, 1967 with the Moon Landing triptych of 1979.

unadjustednonraw_thumb_ea91-2.vhc58wpvqhiqbihblihl0025w_thumb_d1e4-2 Reproduced thanks to the understanding of the One Million Years Foundation.

ikik0nuyrwaemr4js10025gda_thumb_d1e5.q3dievdjrzczsuygsgnshq_thumb_d1e6 Reproduced thanks to the understanding of the One Million Years Foundation.

I would say that any small difference is accounted for by that same small difference between the size C templates and the size H templates.

But I am getting ahead of myself. Today I'm celebrating the year of the template, 1967. And I have Nobu Fukui to thank for the revelation. And there is only one way to thank him:


In Nobu Fukui's memoir, The Tama River, published in 2014, Nobuo (the name of the protagonist) begins the chapter called 'Birthday' by saying he became twelve years old on June 2, 1954.

'I woke up late, and took time to finish breakfast. I did not want to go to school. School reminded me of Harumi and her absence was unbearable.'

He means that the death of his closest friend was unbearable. At school that day Nobuo got slapped hard on the face by his teacher, a man he would be reconciled to by the end of the book.

'When I got home I wanted to crawl into the futon closet but mother was there watching so I could not do that.'

Nobuo's father took him to see a prospective English teacher, a man whose house was full of fascinating books and who knew a boy who also had a passion for art.

Back at Nobuo's family house, there was a 'Happy Birthday' surprise laid on with special food made by his sister, Michiko. Nobuo did not play along with the celebration, it was no Happy Birthday for him. But he did enjoy the food.

'While we were having tea and eating the cake, Michiko brought father a rectangular box which he then handed to me. It was heavy and covered with pretty wrapping paper. I ripped the paper off and I found a wooden case, which I recognised immediately as an oil painting set I had been dreaming of owning. But somehow I did not feel any excitement and did not feel like opening it to see what was inside either. I just kept looking at it for a while.'

"Aren't you going to open it?" said my father.

"Thank you," I turned to my father and said. "I will open it later."

Father looked surprised and then disappointed. He tried to say something but swallowed the words.

Many days later, he told me that Harumi's parents had returned the money I had given as a condolence gift and father had added some and bought the oil painting set. Also, Harumi's parents brought a folding easel for me, saying that Harumi asked them to get two easels because she and I would need them after the operation to make a big painting together.'

The book that these quotes are from, The Tama River, was self-published a few months after the death of On Kawara in 2014. Maybe that event had no great impact on Nobu Fukui, who, having split up with Miyuki had drifted apart from the Kawaras from 1979, in which case I am wrong to conflate the deaths of Harumi and On in this way.

But there it is.

Shared time. What can one say?

It's all we have.


Often in the aftermath of writing and correcting a text I take a day off in which I make a Date Painting. I did so yesterday and made a conscious effort to make the 6 in the same way that On Kawara's 1967 template of a 6 looked.


This painting really works for me. I say that because having finished it by about 8 PM, I sat down and stared at it for a long time. I did make an adjustment to the B, making both its curves more rounded, and to the 3, smoothing out the edges of the white, but most of the time - and we're talking about an hour or so - I was thinking along other lines, lines that I hadn't thought of before.

The letters before the 6 are all narrower than it. As are the numbers that follow. This, together with the spacing created by the punctuation marks, puts all the emphasis on the 6, which, from right to left, is right in the centre of the painting. So the sixth day is given a huge amount of emphasis. More than the second month. More than the 2023rd year.


But it's more than that. Look how all the letters point or face right, towards the 6. And look how all but one of the other numbers face left, towards the 6. I wondered if this was a lucky, compositional coincidence. But then I realised that all the letters in our alphabet are either neutral (like O or A) or face right, except J and Z. Instead of JAN. it should be JAZ. What a start to the year that would be! Thoughts still lingering on Christmas and New Year, reluctant to accept the long, cold days still to come.

By APR. we are galloping forward, or at least two out of three letters are. Though by MAY, full spring, we realise that we want time to stop. JUNE and JULY are a matter of enjoying summer, and trying to hold onto the heat and the light. SEPT and OCT and NOV are stumbling forward towards another winter, though there is still much to enjoy in the natural world in autumn. Oh, yes, always.

As for the numbers, the majority of those look back. That is, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, 9. Though 6 looks forward and 0 and 8 are neutral. So it doesn't matter whether the year is 1979 or 2023, the day is being drawn attention to. The number of the day is the special number.

When I stopped thinking about the 6 as the day of the month, I began to think of the 6 in On Kawara's Dates. He was painting from 1966, all through the 1960s. That sequence of 196 came to its zenith in 1969 with the repetition of the 9. Of course, On would only have needed the one template letter, flipping it first one way then the other, to make the sequence 969, which he did so often in 1969, and so spectacularly in JULY 1969 during the Apollo moon landing.

Time has moved on. Last year, 2022, was the year of the 2, and the first thing I did was work out a way of getting my figure 2 to look the same each time I drew it. I would mark eight dots, six them around the cap of the 2. Though several of these dots I would not measure, but draw by eye.

And now it's 2023. Well, it says 2023 on yesterday's Date, but I know that is On's 6 from 1967. So I think it's reasonable for me to hedge my bets, and travel between 1967 and 2023 when I look at this Date. That's a 56-year span.


In 1967 I turned 10 years old, and in 2023 I will be 66. Yet when 27 SEPT. 2023 comes along there will be no opportunity for me to paint even a single 6. But never mind that. There are an awful lot of days between now and then, and today I must remember to sniff the aconites, harbingers of another precious spring.