Conversation Piece

On Kawara’s Odyssey Across Time

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On Kawara’s Odyssey Across Time
On Kawara’s One Million Years (1999)

Here’s what you need to know about On Kawara’s One Million Years, a transporting artwork of epochal dimensions.

1. A hero of conceptual art, On Kawara is most famous for his so-called date paintings—small and simple rectangular canvases, each one of which bears the date of its creation on a monochrome background. Following self-imposed rules, Kawara destroyed any versions that he was unable to complete in a single day.

2. The artist, who passed away in 2014 at the age of 81, instilled a profound poignancy in these paintings—and his other date-related works, such as time-stamped telegrams he sent to friends with the message “I am still alive”—by having them act as markers of his own mortality, each successive one bringing him closer to his grave. 

3. In One Million Years Kawara tackled a broader theme, slipping the bounds of his own lifespan to chronicle, in numbers printed on paper, two sets of 1,000,000 years: 998031 BC to 1969 AD for the first volume, and 1969 to 1001992 (a million years in the future) for the second.

4. The year literally bookended by the volumes, 1969, was a significant one for the artist, in part because it was the year of the first manned moon landing. Kawara celebrated this technological feat by creating three date paintings in the days surrounding the landing, on the largest canvases he ever used (about 5 by 7 feet in size). 

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