On Kawara: Obsessed with dates

On Kawara: Obsessed with dates

On Kawara (河原 温) is a Japanese conceptual artist who is most famous for his time-related works, among them the ‘Date’ series and ‘One Million Years.’

On Kawara's Painting

Born in 1933, Kawara moved to Tokyo in 1952 after having witnessed the horrors and total devastation that brought the end of the Pacific War. A year later, the 19-year-old presented his first set of works: Bathroom. These pencil drawings portrayed horrific scenes of deformed, mutilated bodies which were a clear reflection of the consequences of war.

It didn’t take long for this young artist to gain recognition as a profound figure in the social-realistic art movement which rebelled against the Japanese government, who were attempting to exude an image of growth and development.

Today Series

Kawara decided to move to New York in 1965 where he has been ever since. This move brought on a complete change in his artistic style with the beginning of the Today series.

The first ‘Date’ painting was started and completed on January 4th 1966, and every year since then, he has produced between 63 and 241 in the Today series. Each painting displays the date on when it was executed in the centre of a solid background. The date itself is always written in white paint, though the format of the date changes depending on location, while the background colour varies.

on Kawara's Today

Escorting each painting is a matching container and enclosed in each is a snippet of Kawara’s choice from a local newspaper that day. Along with this, a rectangle of the paint colour he used is glued onto a calendar with a reference number indicating the size of the painting (one of eight predetermined sizes) and a coloured dot to record how many days it has been since his birth. As each painting must be started and completed on the same day, every piece is a literal presentation of a day in the artist’s life.

One Million Years

One Million Years is another of the artist’s most notable projects. Conceived in 1969, the work itself is a mammoth 20-volume, typewritten record of one million years past and future from 1969. Starting from 998,031 BC and finishing at 1,001,980 AD, the volume lists every single year in between.

The work is transferred into an art instillation which has been presented in galleries all around the world and even outside Nelson’s Column in London. Two readers at a time—volunteers, critics and notable artists, take it in turn to read out a year at a time having a rather profound influence on the listeners. History as we know it is condensed into a few pages and a single life has starts and is lost in a couple of lines.


A more personal approach to the artist’s obsession with time in context are the postcards he sent to friends between 1968 and 1979. Everyday, he would send two different friends or colleagues a postcard from his location, stamped on each would be the words ‘I got up’, the date, his location and the time that he left his bed. The series acts as a semi-autobiographical piece exhibiting his global wanderings and documenting his existence in time.


Time and existence are obviously a huge influence in On Kawara’s pieces, and through his paintings, postcards and calenders, he allows us to pinpoint his location for most days over the last 4 decades. However, despite letting us in to his daily goings-on, he almost never appears in public, seemingly wanting to keep his appearance in private while letting us know he is still alive.

What do you think about the concept of time in art or the importance of letting the world know you existed?