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  • Introduction 

    On the 4th January 1966, Japanese-born American artist On Kawara sat at his desk and, onto a small canvas, marked the day’s date in white paint centered on a monochromatic blue background, inaugurating his seminal Today series. For almost half a century to follow until his death in 2014, Kawara continued to systematically record his existence through the intangible and ephemeral substance of time, visualised over a now finite number of Date Paintings. Though simple and direct, the instantly recognisable series is considered by many to be among the most profound conceptual projects ever undertaken, celebrated for redefining traditional approaches to representational imagery. Executed on the 25th November 1989, the present painting perfectly encapsulates the remarkable economy and clarity of Kawara’s influential oeuvre.

     

    The Task of Painting

     

    Kawara was consistent in his production of the Date Paintings, following a strict set of rules with an almost ritual solemnity. Only working across eight different size formats, the artist would carefully apply four coats of paint onto the canvas surface, ensuring each layer was dry before being slowly rubbed down in preparation for the next. Starting with a coarse brush and migrating down to a finer gradation of hairs with each coat, Kawara would build up the background to mostly dark hues of either grey, red, or cerulean blue - obtaining a rich matte surface of intense colour whilst effacing all traces of his freehanded approach.

     

    On Kawara, 6 AÛG. 1992 in progress, 1992
    On Kawara, 6 AÛG. 1992 in progress, 1992

     Letters, numerals, and punctuation marks, abbreviated in the language and grammatical conventions of the country in which the work was made, were laterally scaled to the size of the canvas and added on using several coats of white paint in the artist’s version of a sans serif font. Though a comparison can be drawn to Jasper Johns’ alphabet paintings of the mid to late 1950s, composed of letters and numbers that layer and intertwine in a manner that challenges any sense of sequential progress, Kawara’s meticulously rendered symbols instead disguise the artist’s hand and retain their informational purpose.

     

    Jasper Johns, Alphabet, 1959. Collection of the Art Institute of Chicago
    Jasper Johns, Alphabet, 1959. Collection of the Art Institute of Chicago

    Relying on a small tapered brush, ruler, set-square, and X-Acto blade to fine-tune details, Kawara would rotate the canvas throughout the process to eliminate imperfections from all sides. Created with the utmost care and craftsmanship, if Kawara did not complete a work within 24 hours, it would be destroyed.

     

    A Kawara State of Mind

     

    Accompanying the present work is a bespoke hand-made cardboard box lined with an excerpt from the New York Daily News, featuring stories of daily reality that range from sports analysis to concerns over New York’s number 7 train line. Contrasting both the artists of Cubist collage who integrated fragments of newspapers into the pictorial space itself, as well as Pop Art icon Andy Warhol whose Headlines series explored the shock-value of mass-produced tabloids, Kawara’s newspaper-clipping boxes instead both anchor and juxtapose the painting’s powerful signifier of the continuity of time, to the actuality of the everyday.

     

    Andy Warhol, Daily News, 1962 © The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
    Andy Warhol, Daily News, 1962
    © The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

    Moreover, housing his paintings in boxes proved to offer a practical solution to Karawa’s need for storage living in a constrained New York loft studio, which as likened by curator Kasper König, is reminiscent of traditional Japanese scroll paintings where ‘you unroll it, and you roll it back, and you store it’ i.

     

    Nov. 25, 1989

     

    Although 1989 was a turning point in political history, a period of hope and strive for freedom as revolutions swept the world, Kawara’s Today series makes no reference to any particular event and all interpretations seem to be equally possible and indifferent. The significance of the paintings lies in the fact that the date depicted becomes the sole embodiment of the work’s figurative imagery, as an index for a moment that has inextricably vanished.

     

    Much like the works of contemporary artist Lucas Arruda, whose depictions of ambiguous yet familiar landscapes prompt viewers to bear onto the work their own memories, Nov. 25, 1989 invites us to fill the holes of such a day with our own personal history, extending Kawara’s meditative ritual of creation into our own experience.

    "Each piece is a finished product, a point in a calendar. But in the contemplation of the series of days devoted to the task of making these paintings, we glimpse a sign of life beyond the dated works themselves, on the horizon of an unlimited time: an act of rupture within the continuity of time." —René DenizotAs an examination of chronological time as a function to measure human existence, Kawara’s Today series sets us out on an introspective journey through history to a moment that is forever lost, bringing to us a profound understanding of life's beautiful but fleeting brevity.

     

    Collector’s Digest

     

    Alongside his oeuvre being the subject of numerous books, catalogues, and essays, Kawara’s work has been presented in key venues throughout the world, including a solo show in New York at the Sperone Westwater Gallery between 3 – 24 March 1990, where the present work was exhibited.

     

    The present work exhibited during New York, Sperone Westwater Gallery, On Kawara, 3 – 24 March 1990
    The present work exhibited during New York, Sperone Westwater Gallery, On Kawara, 3 – 24 March 1990

    Other notable exhibitions include Documenta in Kassel, Germany (1972, 1982, and 2002); the 1970 Tokyo Biennale, the 1976 Kyoto and Venice Biennales, and many conceptual art surveys. In 2015, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York held Kawara’s first comprehensive retrospective, organised into sections titled by the artist himself. Additionally, works by Kawara are represented in major museum collections internationally, including the Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris; Hara Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo; Kunstmuseum, Basel; and the Tate Modern in London, amongst many others. 

     

    i Kasper König, ‘On Kawara: Date Paintings Video’, The Guggenheim Museums and Foundation, 7 February, 2015, online

    • Provenance

      Sperone Westwater Gallery, New York
      The Schulhof Collection, USA
      Private Collection, Japan
      Acquired from the above by the present owner

    • Exhibited

      New York, Sperone Westwater Gallery, On Kawara, 3 – 24 March 1990

28

NOV.25, 1989

1989
signed 'On Kawara' on the reverse
Liquitex on canvas and handmade cardboard box with newspaper clippings from the New York Daily News
canvas 33.5 x 43.5 cm. (13 1/4 x 17 1/8 in.)
box 34.6 x 44.6 x 5 cm. (13 5/8 x 17 1/2 x 1 7/8 in.)

Executed in 1989.

Full Cataloguing

Estimate
HK$2,600,000 - 3,500,000 
€282,000-379,000
$333,000-449,000

Sold for HK$3,276,000

Contact Specialist

Charlotte Raybaud
Head of Evening Sale, 20th Century & Contemporary Art

20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale in Association with Poly Auction

Hong Kong Auction 3 December 2020