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Art in Time

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Rob Larson

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Today's date is Feb. 24, 2009. For most, today is just another day, but for On Kawara, the Japanese conceptual, post-modern artist, it's art.

Since 1966, Kawara has been creating what's known as "date paintings", or portraits of the date in which the art was produced, with basic white lettering on a solid black canvas background. Such art may seem simple to create; however, since Kawara refuses to use stencils to ensure that each letter and number is picture perfect, a day's work takes longer than one might imagine.

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One of the first "date paintings"

If Kawara is unable to finish painting on the same day that's on the canvas, the unfinished piece is scrapped without hesitation. And though Kawara's artwork appears simple in structure, there is still a significant, intimate exchange that occurs between the artist and the right sort of viewer. "It's really interesting to see people, who don't know anything about Kawara, take in his 'date painting' for the first time," Jessica Cochran, the Programs Manager of Art Chicago, said. "At first they think they can do something like that themselves, and then the motive behind the work starts to dig into them. It's what contemporary art is all about."

Anyone looking for a Kawara date won't find one close by a Renoir or a Monet in any bigger gallery. In order to find Kawara's work in an art museum, head towards the wing containing modern, conceptual art (hint: if a Jackson Pollock is in view, you're getting warmer). And while the "date paintings" are artistically unique, other contemporary artists have produced work that is conceptually similar. "On is one of the more prominent figures in contemporary art," Daniel Quiles, assistant professor of art history at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, said. "He was very big in the 70's, but he's still definitely given the attention he deserves."

Tony Karman, Art Chicago's Vice President, agrees with Cochran and Quiles on the significance of the "date paintings". "Kawara's work is a very classic example of contemporary art. He makes you think about time, itself, and how important it really is. That's something we shouldn't forget, but for some reason, we still do."

(Here is another project that On is working on)


Whether or not one is a fan of Kawara, or of contemporary art on the whole, this conceptual artist's work has earned a place on the Art Institute of Chicago's walls. And while the Art Institute's "Free February" promotion has already ended, where admission is still priceless.

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