Modern Art and Spirituality: On Kawara

On Kawara Today

“Death, if nothing else, is a form of transcendence—particularly from a life spent accounting.”

– Holt’s review of On Kawara’s 2015 retrospective at the Guggenheim. The artist died just before the show’s opening.


April 27, 2018—today. Imagine for a moment you got up each day with two crucial tasks. First, paint the date on canvas in the language of the country where you find yourself—if the local character set is not Roman you revert to Esperanto. At the same time, decide on a single clipping which encapsulates the day. If your painting is unfinished by the end of the day, then you have to destroy it. This was the premise for On Kawara’s acclaimed Today-series; a series we will soon revisit.

Accounting for Bombs and Bathrooms…

Indeed, like any good artist, On Kawara accounts for and takes account of the world, but also draws on all the rich nuances the word “accountant” affords. Kawara grew up in Japan in the wake of the Second World War’s devastation. He shot to prominence with his Bathroom-series exhibited in 1953 at the Nippon Exhibition, Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum. Littered with wounded and disjoined bodies in an exitless bathroom, these early paintings transformed an intimate, cleansing space into a filthy, bloodstained, claustrophobic nightmare. No wonder, many saw in his representation an analogy to the inescapable violence done to the Japanese psyche through the war, bombs, and American occupation which followed.

…and Being (accounted for)

After the Bathroom-series, however, Kawara’s impulse would take a radical turn towards to, what is today called, conceptual art; a movement which strips art reducing it to a pure idea. Almost as if Kawara wanted an escape from the bathroom of his shattered identity, he moved to New York City and tried to portray himself as a world citizen. As he travelled, he sent acquaintances postcards and telegrams from the around the world. Some contained daily itineraries, others spoke of short repeated meetings, still others had the words “I am still alive” scribbled on them.  Kawara’s messages serve as a daily residue, not only of his quotidian being but also his being in relationships with others.
On Kawara I am Still Alive

Painting as Liturgy

Now, if ever there was a universal ritual akin to religious liturgies in Modern Art, On Kawara’s Today-series is it. The urgency of marking this day’s temporality and the surprise of its becoming is impossible to miss. In painting the day and commemorating the news On Kawara creates an artefact which in concert with his other works celebrates existence but in a context—our post-Second World War world—where one cannot overstate the precariousness of that very existence.
On Kawara Today

“I am afraid of my ‘Today’ paintings”—On Kawara (May 26, 1966)

Indeed, one cannot help but recognise the tension between optimism and pessimism in his corpus. The anxiety best summed up in the “still” of the “I am still alive” scribbled on the postcards to his friends. The Today paintings invite us into Kawara’s angst as the painted dates, and their accompanying news snip-bits, pile up each becomes a mirror of the predicament familiar to our time.
Our days like Kawara come marked with an “I am still alive”. We, also, live in a tension between spheres. Between the knowledge of international violence sometimes perpetrated in the name of peace and our own local concerns. Between the robotic-like repetition of an average day and the fear of it shattering through some senseless evil act. We are afraid, like Kawara of “Today”. And what the piling up of todays means for our future.


Like it or not, the shattering events of the Second World War shaped our world. Indeed, any mention of economic, political, or scientific progress at any cost should bring back memories of scapegoating genocide and atomic bombs. Yet such memories should not make us hate anyone for we are all living under On Kawara’s “still”.
Still, the day breaks, and we must give thanks. Yet, promise throws its faint light on every day; besides, we are, and sometimes that is enough. And if you can whisper hope to someone else this day or the next, this is love. An act which completes the day’s painting, that accounts for it, for us, for our future.