On Kawara’s Last Painting, and the futility of a rarified signature style.

On-Hakawa's-Last-Painting

Kawara’s final painting, completed in 2001, has been censored, and hidden from the public for over a decade.

On Kawara is most recognized for the “date paintings” he began in 1966. He essentially decided to make one painting a day of the date, on a monochrome surface, by hand. This didn’t work out practically, so he missed days, and nobody seems to mind this. More than 25,000 of these paintings are credited to his name, but there’s a little known story about when he stopped painting them, why, and how they kept being churned out without him.

Kawara lived in New York for roughly 50 years, and he’d already been making the paintings for decades when he finally decided to abandon them. He wrote a letter notifying his art dealers, explaining his decision, and also his intention to not produce the remaining paintings he was contracted to complete. His explanation was as follows:

I am not the same person who started this project 35 years ago. My body does not contain a single atom from that period. Frankly, I cannot bear to make even one more of these paintings. The formula has become a prison sentence, and executing the paintings has become a debt. This morning over a cup of coffee I finally admitted to myself that I just wished I could stop. I said out loud, “Fuck it”. And I decided to make one last painting, which is the only one I could muster any enthusiasm for anymore, signaling my ending the series. It says, Fuck It.

Not so fast, Kawara. This was bigger than him because there was big money at stake. The gallery was not willing to accept one final painting, on red, as equal to dozens of already paid for paintings yet to materialize. They insisted he complete the contracted images before he call it quits, and they also demanded that he not show the “Fuck It” painting because it could undermine the story which gives his enormous body of work credibility.

Kawara is notoriously reticent, and very little is known about him. He doesn’t make public appearances, and doesn’t even allow himself to be photographed. So, we don’t know for certain if it is mere coincidence, but, he chose to stop making his date paintings shortly after 9/11. Rumors from very credible sources have circulated that after making a painting on that trajic day – which was extremely difficult to do under the circumstances, though it did create a needed sense of continuum – he realized that the resultant image in no way related to what happened, and conveyed absolutely nothing about the lives lost. The painting was identical in every meanigful respect to the one he’d completed the day before. Because of this he decided to skip making date paintings until the contrast between the muteness of his canvasses, and the momentous disaster would not be so evident. That day never came.

It is also rumored that in order to fulfill his contract he hired a team of students to make enough paintings in the course of a couple months, following his established template, to last for years. Obviously they were not made on the dates that were painted on them. Kawara stored the paintings chronologically, and periodically shipped a batch to his gallery when their dates had passed.

~ Ends part 1


Part 2: The Reveal

Yes, clever reader, you are absolutely right. This is a piss take. It’s a fiction I came up with in answer to the most obvious questions that came to mind when I considered his work, which is now on view in a retrospective Didn’t it get boring making those? Did he make one for 9/11? and Would it matter if assistants made them for him?

But there are other, more serious issues that trouble me. The highest price one of his paintings has fetched, that I’m aware of, is $4 million. Others go for over a million a pop. Admittedly, and this really is true, at least according to Kawara himself, if he didn’t finish a painting by midnight on the day of the date he was painting on it, he destroyed it. This means that no piece ever took more than a day, in which case individual pieces that took less than a day to make, and could have been made by anyone with several hours of training, are being sold for over a million dollars each. We’re so used to the art world being ludicrous, that this just seems fitting, but if you step back and look at it at all, there must be a story or context that transforms those quick, formulaic exercises in minimalism into priceless works of art. What is the legend surrounding this artist?

An article in The Daily Beast, from 20012 starts, “We ought to know On Kawara better than just about any famous artist.” Really? Are there so few who merit us bothering about more than him? His date paintings are referred to as “self portraits… made in the old-fashioned medium of paint, hand applied with meticulous old-fashioned skills”. That’s really giving as much possible credit to as little painting as is possible. The claims for this series are that the paintings let us know an incredible amount about the artist, including what he was doing on each of those days (painting the date), and “that is a more concrete, usable, specific fact than Rembrandt ever provides”. Had Rembrandt only known that when he was alive, he could have put a date on the back of his canvases for each day he worked on them, as prisoners scratch strokes in the wall in cartoons for each day they are incarcerated. Comparing Kawara’s date paintings, as self-portraits, to the self-portraits of Rembrandt is bad enough, but concluding that Kawara’s paintings were in any way better is absurd.

A curator is quoted as saying, “I read them existentially. They’re a witness to being alive, each day.” OK. I think you get the picture. And I think if I want to have a career in art I should stop what I’m doing now – trying to make new images for the collective imagination – and instead do something like Kawara. I already have an idea. Each time I take a shit, I must make at least a sketch of it, if not a more complex drawing. I could call it “999 Shits”. There would be a variety of mediums and techniques, depending on what materials I had on hand. Some would be done on buses and airplanes, and some on squat toilets in public restrooms in China. The thousandth shit would be free from documentation. You get the idea. Whatever. Don’t worry, I’m not about to do that series. It’s bullshit, and I have better ideas.

I think if we scoop away all the whipped cream, what Kawara did was come up with a gimmick that would set him apart from other artists, establish himself as a brand, and thus his work as a commodity. It’s the same thing Hirst did with his dot paintings, and it’s the most common approach to art for the contemporary artist.

Artists know that there isn’t room for a lot of people up on the stage, and the best way to be included is to be clearly distinguishable from everyone else. According to anthropologist Robin Dunbar, we we can only harbor up to 150 people as significant in our minds (Dunbar’s number). The tragedy of this is that superstars take up spaces that would otherwise be occupied by people we have some actual contact with. It also means there just isn’t room for hundreds of living artists in the popular mind, in which case a few dozen become contenders, and a handful become household names. To see this clearly, just think of acting, and that the same actors and actresses get the big roles. We can only recognize so many faces as intimately familiar.

So, in art, you just gotta’ stand out. And this means going far out on a limb, often into highly restrictive practices (Kawara), or ridiculous ones (Milo Moiré, who dropped paint-filled eggs from her vagina on to a canvas several feet below). You can see it in the Abstract Expressionists, who each defined their own territory of ways to brush, mark, drip on, or stain a canvas. It’s as if they established monopolies on techniques, and the other artists respected those boundaries [See my article: 10 Abstract Expressionists, and the signature styles that killed them*.]

This can be self-defeating, however, because in staking out your own territory of what art practice you cornered for yourself, you radically restrict your range of expression, and prevent yourself from working in any of the other possible ways. You could end up just flinging paint on a canvas on the floor for the rest of your life, or making endless paintings of the day’s date.

I was riding my bike today, and thinking about this, and I kept coming back to corporate style monopolies like Starbucks, Walmart, or McDonald’s. Would it be better if every Starbucks disappeared and was replaced by a one-off, independently owned and operated coffee shop? There are 11,563 Starbucks locations in America. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather they were all different Mom & Pop shops. And how about McDonald’s? There are 34,480 of them in the States. Can you stop and imagine how much richer life would be if every one of those was a different hamburger joint? Consider there would be nearly 35,000 more private businesses that belonged to individuals, whereas now they are owned by a handful of people and run by low level managers.

And then I come back to art and I think the same phenomenon is going on. We just have a few big name artists raking in the hundreds of millions, while the rest of us get in line to work at Starbucks, anomalous temp jobs, or other unrewarding drudgery. I’ve done nearly ten years of temp work myself and other drudgery!

In the same way it would be better to break up the monopolies of restaurants, and allow in much more variety, and many more successful and independent people, it would be much better if instead of there only being enough room for a handful of artists, there were room for say, 34,480 fine artists to have successful careers. Without the pressure to stand out from everyone else at all costs, artists could focus more on combining skills and making something meaningful with the full spectrum of available content and techniques.

How to go about that is beyond the scope of this article, and probably beyond me in the short term, but I can address the delimiting mentality of considering art primarily in relation to perceived radical innovations, which are more accurately just delineated niche practices, variations on established themes, or exalted gimmicks. As an artist, you don’t have to play by that game. I think artists would benefit by being more like MMA (Mixed Martial Arts) fighters, who integrate the best of multiple styles, than like specialists in an ultimately meaningless field, doing the equivalent of clocking in and pulling the same levers all day, and trying to palm that off as profound.

~ Ends

The-Art-Critic-small

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6 thoughts on “On Kawara’s Last Painting, and the futility of a rarified signature style.

  1. If you’re going to do your 999 shits, you’ll need to do them sincerely. I would drop all the irony. Unless, of course, you’re being ironic in a sincere way. Maybe that’s what Kawara did? Slavishly copying the date out seems analogous to the repetitive motions people like you and I go through each day as we do our temp jobs. Perhaps, then, your turd series could be called ‘Going Through The Motions’?

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    1. Yes, I think you’re right. The marketers of fine art have established that the public does not like “irony”, which is why Koons pretends to be sincere about loving kitsch, and his appropriations being “transcendent” creations that “vindicate the viewer” and their presumed abysmal tastes in art (preference for mindless kitsch). I sorta’ get Kawara. I should say, more than that, I’m pretty sure I totally get him. I’ve done performance art and installation art in college, and we were all familiar with these sorts of tactics and the underlying rhetoric to justify them. But it is precisely as you say. If you’ve worked a temp job, of a fully time crappy job, you know that doing boring, repetitive tasks day after day, year after year, is not ennobling, or enabling, but rather spirit crushing. It is “wage slavery”. Kawara is OK, but, by me, not worthy of the accolades showered on him in a distorted narrative of art history that privileges the driest conceptual art as part of a pantheon of radical artistic achievement.

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      1. I would walk past a row of painted dates and head for the cafe, but only if someone had dragged me there in the first place. I get what this sort of stuff does, but not why it has appeal.

        How about drawing your daily self-portraits of your shit for a minimum wage while being employed by yourself? Incidentally, 999 is the emergency services number in the UK. How about ‘911 self-portraits’? You could hint at (without ever clearly articulating) political undertones.

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        1. I can’t afford to pay myself minimum wage to do the are I most want to do, so, I’d gladly accept minimum wage for drawing shits. 911 has too much politics involved that could get really sticky. Might have to do 555, which in Thai means “ha, ha, ha” because their nuber for 5 is pronounced “ha”.

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