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On Kawara


You may not recognize the name On Kawara, but you have likely encountered his work. The enigmatic conceptual artist spent over 50 years creating paintings that explored the passage of time and human existence. His signature series, "Date Paintings," featured nothing more than the date the work was created in simple white letters on a monochromatic background. Deceptively simple, his paintings contain hidden depths of meaning which have secured his place as an influential conceptual artists of the 20th century.Though Kawara's works have been exhibited worldwide, little is known about the man himself. He was intensely private, refusing interviews and photos to let his art speak for itself instead. His life remains shrouded in mystery. Yet by reducing painting to its most essential elements of colour and text, Kawara's art strips away the artist's ego to highlight deeper truths of human consciousness and mortality. This biography seeks to understand the meaning behind Kawara's profound and poetic works by piecing together the enigmatic life of the artist who created them.

More Facts

Name: On

Surname: Kawara

Lives & Works:


Date of Birth:

Date of Death: 2014


Table of Contents

Table of Contents


On Kawara
Image Credit: MoMA

Early Life and Education in Japan: What is Kawara’s Background as an Artist?

Kawara was born in 1932 in Kariya, Japan. He attended the National University of Fine Arts and Music, receiving a Bachelor’s degree in 1952.

After graduating, Kawara travelled extensively through Europe, studying art and philosophy. Existentialist thinkers like Jean-Paul Sartre mainly influenced him. These encounters shaped Kawara’s view that meaning is constructed by individuals and influenced his later conceptual works.

In the late 1950s, Kawara moved to Paris and associated with other conceptual artists. His early paintings explored themes of time and place. For example, his “Place” series featured maps of cities with the location where a dot marked a picture.

Transition to New York

In 1965, Kawara moved to New York City, where he lived and worked for the rest of his life. In New York, Kawara’s work became more structured and minimalist. He began his best-known series, Today, painting each day’s date in white letters on monochromatic backgrounds. Each Today painting was intended to represent the day it was made. This series gave Kawara a disciplined practice that he would continue for decades.

Kawara saw art as a way to grasp and give meaning to the passage of time. His work often incorporated dates, times, and locations to pin moments in the flux of time. Kawara was a very private artist, letting his art speak for itself. His conceptual works aimed to raise existential questions about how we understand and give significance to time.

What is On Kawara known for?

On Kawara
Image Credit: Distributed Art Publishers

On Kawara was a pioneering conceptual artist who used minimal means to explore profound ideas. His works gave form to intangible subjects like the ephemeral nature of a single day. Kawara demonstrated that conceptual art could be intensely personal while also universal. His influential and thought-provoking pieces earned him international acclaim and established him as a leader of the abstract art movement.

Kawara lived a life shrouded in mystery and dedicated to his conceptual art. His Date Paintings offer a glimpse into the enigmatic mind of an artist obsessed with time, routine, and the human experience. While his life remains largely unknown, his art has cemented his place as a pioneer of conceptualism. Kawara’s work reminds us to pause and appreciate each moment. His Date Paintings stand as a monument to the beauty and fragility of life.

Career highlights

On Kawara
Image Credit: SFMoMA

The Emergence of Kawara’s Conceptual Art: The Today Series

On Kawara emerged as a conceptual artist in the 1960s, gaining international recognition for his date paintings. His minimalist works explored ideas surrounding time, place and existence.

In 1966, Kawara began his Today series, paintings of the date they were created. Each work features the date prominently in white text on a monochromatic background. Kawara strictly followed a process for creating the paintings, completing one per day. The series spanned nearly five decades until the artist died in 2014.

The Today series represented Kawara’s exploration of the passage of time and its connection to identity and physical space. Each painting captured a specific moment in time that could never be recovered. The series also demonstrated Kawara’s discipline and commitment to his strict process.

Kawara’s Today series serves as a poetic meditation on time, chronicling days that are at once deeply personal yet universal in their simplicity. The paintings invite self-reflection as viewers ponder what life events or mundane moments transpired on any given date. Their minimalism belies a profound poignancy, eternalizing fleeting moments that would otherwise be lost to the passage of days. The Today series remains Kawara’s most renowned and ambitious conceptual project, cementing his status as a pioneer of abstract art.

I Went, and I Met series.

In addition to the Today series, Kawara created other conceptual works focused on time and place. His I Went and Met series from 1968 to 1979 recorded details of his daily journeys and encounters. Kawara’s One Million Years series from 1969 projected the passage of immense periods.

The understated canvases require close inspection to discern the date centred on each painting. The dates are painted with precision, reflecting Kawara’s disciplined practice. Viewers must lean in, focusing their gaze to make out the thin lettering. This intimate experience creates a profound connection between the viewer, the artist, and the temporary nature of any single day.

On Kawara List of Work

On Kawara
Image Credit: MoMA

Notable Works beyond the Date Paintings

Beyond his renowned Date Paintings, On Kawara created other conceptual works that provide insight into his enigmatic practice.

One Million Years

It is an audio work that features a male voice reading dates spanning one million years forward and one million years backward from the present in increments of one year. The work is meant to evoke a sense of vastness of time that far surpasses human comprehension. Versions of One Million Years have been exhibited since 1969, with the dates read aloud for the full duration of the exhibition.

I Got Up

From 1968 to 1979, Kawara created this series of postcards sent to friends and colleagues indicating the time he awoke each day. Like the Date Paintings, these postcards represent Kawara’s attempt to record and share mundane details of daily life. Over 4,000 postcards from I Got Up remain in private collections.

Map paintings

These paintings from the mid-1960s, depict outlines of countries.

A Picture of the Place in Which I Stand

It features photographs of Kawara’s feet standing in various locations.

Atlas, Rubber Stamps and Boxes series

The series from the late 1960s and early 1970s.

These wide-ranging yet conceptually related bodies of work offer a broader view into Kawara’s practice beyond the Date Paintings for which he is best known.

Exhibitions and Publications

On Kawara, participated in over 140 group exhibitions and had more than 50 solo shows worldwide. 

Some of his most notable collections include:

Documenta 5


First major solo exhibition at the Dia Art Foundation in New York

1993 to 2004

Retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum in New York


Kawara also produced artist’s books, known as date books, containing newspaper clippings from the cities where he exhibited. These books show his meticulous documentation process and interest in mapping time and place.

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