This weekend we're excited to check out On Kawara--Silence, the Guggenheim's new survey of more than 200 works by the artist, who died last summer. After, we'll stick with the Japanese theme and head to Naruto Ramen, a no-nonsense noodle shop a few blocks to the east, on Third Avenue. Update: the On Kawara show closed on in early May 2015. To stay updated on what's going on right now, sign up for our #YourArtWeekend newsletter here.
"On Kawara--Silence," which opens at the Guggenheim today, is the first retrospective of the career of On Kawara, the Conceptual artist who died just last summer, at the age of 81. (Kawara would no doubt put it as 29,771 days.) The artist grew up in Japan but lived and worked here in New York for the majority of his career, making art in media ranging from clean painting on canvas to postcards, maps and telegrams. He typically used straightforward terms -- dates, most famously -- to create art about time and place, making a passive awareness of everyday life his subject for more than fifty years.
Kawara's "Today" series, which he returned to again and again for decades, was the centerpiece of his career-long mission to document the passage of time, and of his own life. The content of each piece -- the date of its creation, painted in the language and style of the country in which it was made -- is presented as plainly as possible, centered in white text against a monochrome rectangular canvas. Kawara gives unusual centrality to a piece of information that in any other context occupies just a small corner of a page. Their execution is consistently impeccable; these "date paintings" are prime examples of the ways in which some great conceptual art can retain the aesthetic, sensory power of what Duchamp called "retinal art." And the slowly rising, circular ramp of Frank Lloyd Wright's Guggenheim might be the best place in the world to experience these repetitive, time-obsessed paintings.
In addition to the paintings, Kawara executed several other data-focused projects over the course of his career. His "I Got Up" series consist of hundreds of postcards he send to friends, with only a single sentence on each, announcing what time he woke up that morning. Other projects include maps with a drawn line represented where the artist went that day ("I Went"), lists of names ("I Met"), and newspaper cuttings ("I Read"). For years, he sent telegrams to museums with only the words "I am still alive" typed in the message. Kawara is usually described as a Conceptual artist, but he might more closely be called an artistic bookkeeper, using art to record data about his favorite subject, the passage of time, and offer proof of his existence in the simplest ways possible.
From one angle, Kawara's repetitive, almost compulsive documentation of the simplest facts of being alive makes his art seem death-obsessed and gloomy, even paranoid. But it becomes clear is something extremely hopeful about these pieces. Kawara seems to be arguing that just being alive and working is a wonderful thing, a gift valuable enough to be documented by a beautiful object. And that is beautiful.
After the Guggenheim, head over to Naruto Ramen, a small, simple, classic spot for a bowl of ramen. It'll fill you up and keep you warm at the same time.