1968 (1)






JANUARY TO MARCH


1968 was a momentous year for On Kawara because he took his Date Painting studio on the road. From the beginning of April he would be away from New York for a year, spending six months in Mexico and six months travelling through South America. He didn't have enough money to achieve this ambitious plan, even with Hiroko Hiraoka's support, so Kasper
König gave him the equivalent of 1500 dollars. How important was this financial assistance? Think Theo helping Vincent to travel to Arles and settle himself there in 1887.

But first New York. Eight Date Paintings in January. Six in February. Then just two in March, a month that must have been dominated by making arrangements. On Kawara would have needed to post canvases and boxes ahead to the Monte Carlo Hotel in historic Mexico City, where he'd booked
a room. Unless he was intent on buying the stuff when he was out there. Certainly, he would have had to carefully pack all his painting materials and some stationery if this mobile studio idea was going to work out in practise. But by March 29, he was all set. The subtitle for that day's painting reads: "Roy Lichtenstein was wearing a red sweater this evening." Did Lichtenstein gift the sweater to his fellow artist when he found out he was off to Mexico? Well, we don't know exactly how well networked On Kawara was by this stage, so let's make no such assumptions. The subtitle to MAR. 30,1968 is: "I will leave New York for Mexico the day after tomorrow."

APRIL

The first Date Painting made in Mexico was dated the 5th of April. Like all subsequent paintings made in Mexico, the subtitle was written in Spanish. On Kawara had already lived in Mexico for two years from 1929, staying with his engineer father, so he would have known the language. But more than that, the daily papers were printed in Spanish, and as his habit was to quote from them, then Spanish really had to be his "Today" language of choice.
"La violence y el audio racial envuelven a los Estados Unidos." Which translates as "Racial violence and hatred engulf the United States."

The second Today painting was on the 9th, but after that there were 18 Today paintings made in April. Each one had a quote from the local paper. Running one's eye down through the subtitles, a non-Spanish speaker picks out words such as Kansas, Berlin, California, Le Union Sovietica, Nigeria, Mexico, los Estados Unidos, Greenwich, XIX Olimpiada, U Thant, Argelia, Las Vegas, Vietnam, el Valle de Mexico, Egipto, George Washington. The subtile for 30 April doesn't have a noun that stands out. So I have asked Google to translate it: "Today is Tuesday April 30, one hundred and twenty-first day of 1968. There are 245 days until the end of the year." I should have known.

In addition, On Kawara wanted to thanks Kasper
König for his generosity in helping him get out of New York. Knowing how much Kasper liked postcards, OK embarked on a project of sending him a card almost every day. The first one suggests that the artist had obtained a typewriter in his new city:

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Collection of Kasper König. On Kawara Studio. Reproduced with the forbearance, I hope, of the copyright holders.

Perhaps Kasper König didn't realise he would ultimately get a postcard every day for months on end from his friend. He may not have kept them all to begin with. The second one, reproduced in the Guggenheim's Silence catalogue, shows that by now On Kawara had invested in adjustable rubber stamps. Or, more likely, he'd pressed into action the stamps that he'd brought from New York. Two rubber stamps to begin with. One to stamp large the joke titles (and real address) of Kasper and Barbara. The other superimposing the date.

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Collection of Kasper König. On Kawara Studio. Reproduced with the forbearance, I hope, of the copyright holders.

What is the extended scribble supposed to suggest? Is it not barbed wire above a prison wall? Is it not making a joke of the tourist feature on the picture side of the card? On the one hand, a tourist is exploring sunny Mexico City. On the other, the artist, hardly venturing beyond the four walls of his hotel room, is knuckling down to his Date Painting. A prison of his own making?

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Collection of Kasper König. On Kawara Studio. Reproduced with the forbearance, I hope, of the copyright holders.

The postcard is full of the complementary thinking that On Kawara said to Wolfgang Max Faust was typically Japanese. The message complements the image.

Picture side: the world is my oyster.

Message side: I am confined to the oyster shell.

1 + -1 = 0.

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Collection of Kasper König. On Kawara Studio. Reproduced with the forbearance, I hope, of the copyright holders.

Of course, On Kawara had to leave his hotel each day, if for no other reason than to buy the day's paper, buy his cigarettes and post his postcards. And hard against the hotel was the National Library of Mexico, housed at the time in the Church of Saint Augustine. Currently this splendid old building looks like this:

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I doubt if the same stretch of barbed wire was there in 1968. But perhaps it is a motif of the city that caught On Kawara's eye, something that one didn't find in New York.

Anyway, a few yards further along the footpath is a pop-up umbrella under which magazines, cigarettes and papers are sold. Let the artist buy what his heart desired and go back to the hotel.

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In other words, let the artist slowly get acclimatised to the new place, as any introspective traveller does. On Kawara ate all his meals at the hotel, I suspect. Let's start by making that assumption, anyway. And on April 10, he ate a single egg for lunch. An egg that echoes the monument that appears on the picture side of the postcard sent to his great friend(s).

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Collection of Kasper König. On Kawara Studio. Reproduced with the forbearance, I hope, of the copyright holders.

I mention this egg business because, by early May, not only would On Kawara have settled on the postcard format for 'I GOT UP', but by then he would be typing out the names of everyone he met each day ('I MET)'. One can see the beginnings of this on the next preserved postcard, which seems to consist of the signatures of four people. Fellow diners at the Hotel Monte Carlo?

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Collection of Kasper König. On Kawara Studio. Reproduced with the forbearance, I hope, of the copyright holders.

That was the 12th postcard that On Kawara sent to his friend. Meanwhile, as I've said, the Date Painting was going according to plan. Hours were being spent in his hotel room. Painstakingly painting "Today":


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From the collection of The Fundación Jumex Arte Contemporáneo, Mexico City. Reproduced with the forbearance, I hope, of the copyright holders.

And here is the 13th postcard to KK:


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Collection of Kasper König. On Kawara Studio. Reproduced with the forbearance, I hope, of the copyright holders.

Again, I feel it's the signature of someone (Katsusike, Miyanchu?) that On Kawara met that day, as new projects were suggesting themselves, but whose exact form was still evolving. How clever of KK to keep these cards right from the beginning. They so tell the story of an open mind forming new connections as it searches for a precise form that will satisfy certain aesthetic criteria.


MAY

Full steam ahead. A Date Painting every day of the month in 1968, which On Kawara hadn't done up to this time. Plus a second painting on three May days: the 4th, the 21st and the 29th. That's 34 paintings in all. The previous monthly record being 25, achieved in May of 1966.

Many of the subtitles mention 'Paris', where riots and strikes were going on. But by far the most significant day was May 10. The subtitle reads:
"Grandiosa homenaje a la madre Mexican y un ciclon que Matt casi 1,000 persons en la zone de Aykab de Birmania." Which translates as: "Great tribute to the Mexican mother and a cyclone that killed almost 1,000 people in the Aykab zone of Burma." It's one of those times when On Kawara juxtaposed two stories from the daily paper for reasons that are hard to work out. The first story may or may not appear in the cutting that was placed in the Date Painting's box.

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Reproduced from On Kawara: Date Paintings in 89 Cities with the forbearance, I hope, of the copyright holders.

The reason I say May 10 was the most important day of the month, is because two further projects began that day.

'I MET' is a list of the people that On Kawara met from midnight to midnight. For some reason, none of the standard On Kawara books reproduce any of these lists until the one commemorating the 1st of July, 1968. So I'll delve into this project further when I get to July.

In any case - for me more exciting than 'I MET' - On Kawara established a final form for his daily postcard, 'I GOT UP'. Below is the much-reproduced card he sent to his friend and sponsor on May 10.

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Collection of Kasper König. On Kawara Studio. Reproduced with the forbearance, I hope, of the copyright holders.

Note that the artist had by now desisted with his 'Mr and Mrs 1968' joke. Moreover, he had stamped it '1' in the knowledge that he had established the format he intended to continue with.

By September 1, the postcards to Kasper
König had come to number 115 in the sequence, one being sent every day. Being 21 further postcards in May; 30 more cards in June; 31 in July; and 31 in August. Plus the 1 in September. Making 114 in all. So perhaps one day König was sent two postcards. A selection of 1968 and 1969 postcards to Kasper König is used on the cover of the Phaidon monograph as can be seen here:

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Anne Wheeler tells us in
On Kawara - Silence, that by May 12, the artist was sending off two postcards a day. The second went to another recipient, although she doesn't mention who that person was. By August, as we'll see, the recipient of the second postcard was William Copley.

The information as to when On Kawara got up, takes over from the drawing of barbed wire as the main part of the message side of the card. Not 'woke up' but 'got up'. Got out of bed, one assumes.

And another date stamp was used for On Kawara's own address. Which is a basic yet vital piece of information to the biographer or other researcher. Cue a present day shot of the exterior of the Hotel Monte Carlo, angled so that you can read much of the sign.

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I wonder if On Kawara had a room with a balcony at the front of the hotel. That again might help explain the barbed wire motif on the April postcards.

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Hotel Monte Carlo. 69 Republica de Uruguay. It's great - and much to the benefit of my present endeavours - that the building is still there and operating as a hotel in 2021, over 50 years later.

What On Kawara didn't have was a camera. Given that his projects were largely about documentation, he clearly decided that he wouldn't use one. So there are no photos of his hotel room laid out as a studio. There are no photographs of the people he included in 'I MET'

If I had a reproduction of another of the May, 1968, postcards, I would place it here in the text. So that we could revel in the complementary aspects on display. The tourist image and the information re the man getting up… The sender's address and the recipient's address… The date and the possibility that there might exist a corresponding Date Painting…

There is a poem called
Days by Philip Larkin, written in 1953. It goes:

What are days for?
Days are where we live.
They come, they wake us
Time and time over.
They are to be happy in:
Where can we live but days?

Ah, solving that question
Brings the priest and the doctor
In their long trousers
Running through the streets.

I very nearly got to the end of that before changing the words of a line.

I muse on this as I begin to wind down in my Monte Carlo Hotel bedroom. Where would I rather be than in this room, on this day?

March 15, 2021.

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JUNE

First, let's summarise On Kawara's month of June in 1968:

  • 21 Date paintings. Each with a subtitle in Mexican Spanish.


  • 'I GOT UP' postcards were posted at the rate of two per day, making 60 in all.


  • Each day of the month, On Kawara made a list of everyone he had met. He had a diary he used for this, in order to hand-write the names, and I don't know at what stage he typed up the list, or whether he waited a full year to do that in New York.


  • Starting from the first day of June, On Kawara drew a red line on a photocopied map of Mexico City to indicate where he had gone that day. He produced such a map every day. A small circle indicates where he 'GOT UP' and small red lines indicated the places where he stopped in his journeys. He didn't distinguish between walking and other modes of transport, so it's just one red line per day, making 30 annotated maps for June.


I have a reproduction of the Date Painting
5 JUNE,1968, for which the subtitle is: “E.U. senador Robert F. Kennedy fue balaceado a las 00.25 hora de hoy, en le lobby del hotel Ambassador de los Angeles, Cal., y su estado es de extreme gravedad.” Which translates as: "E.U. Senator Robert F. Kennedy was shot at 12:25 am today, in the lobby of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, Cal., And his condition is extremely serious." On this occasion, a cutting involving Robert Kennedy can definitely be seen in the extract of newspaper that lines the Date Painting's box.

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From the collection of The Fundación Jumex Arte Contemporáneo, Mexico City. Reproduced with the forbearance, I hope, of the copyright holders.


Unfortunately, none of the books I have access to (as at 15 March, 2021) includes reproductions of any June, 1968, postcards or any June, '68, 'I MET' lists. But that doesn't concern me too much, as I do have a couple of 'I WENT' maps for June '68 at my disposal. June 19 (reproduced in the Dallas Museum volume,
On Kawara: 10 Tableaux and 16.952 Pages). And a second day, 29 June, from On Kawara - Silence. The former is a high-quality print which I reproduce below:

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Reproduced with the forbearance, I hope, of the copyright holders.

Having investigated June 19's movements with the help of Google Maps, I can say this. On Kawara would seem to have gone for a walk that began outside his hotel and took him around two blocks, which meant him making two entries into buildings. Perhaps he bought stamps. Or postcards. Or cigarettes. Or a coffee. Perhaps he took the opportunity to post his day's written 'I GOT UP' postcards.

Below is an enlargement of the travelled area of the above map. The hotel where he woke up is the small red dot to the right of the walked circuit I mention in the last paragraph, towards the top right corner of the map.


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Reproduced with the forbearance, I hope, of the copyright holders.


On Kawara would seem to have made a second circuit on June 19. This was possibly by bus, taxi or car, as the road network - its one-way streets - is consistent with a route outwards, and a variation on that same route back to the hotel. The artist seems to have made two stops at the end of this route, one of them being at a point (close to the bottom left of the above map) where Woolworths has been located for about a hundred years. It's still there in 2021.

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If On Kawara did make a special visit to Woolworths, why might that have been? The store may have been a good source of stationery, certainly it used to be in Britain. Pads of paper, red biros, and the like, may have been purchased. Even rubber stamps, perhaps. And what about brown paper and string in order to package up Date Paintings prior to posting them home to New York? This possibility got me thinking. Did On Kawara let the paintings pile up in his hotel room? A dangerous game, given that in May alone he produced 34. Did he post them individually? Or did he post the paintings in multiples of A and B size pictures?

Moreover, if he did post the Date Paintings himself, which post office did he use in order to do so? Did he even use a post office, or did he have an arrangement with an art gallery or other institution, perhaps thanks to Kasper König?

Although he didn't visit it on Wednesday, June 19, I'd like to think that On Kawara made use of the magnificent Palacio Postal, found towards the top right of the map below, Mexico's main post office since 1907. And still functioning in the 21st Century.


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Below is a view of the building from the outside. It was walkable from the hotel on Avenue Republico de Uruguay, which is also marked on the above map, in its bottom-right quarter. Though On Kawara didn't particularly like walking, I've been told, so he may have preferred to go there by taxi.

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Once inside, the post office's palatial design would have reminded him of the precious bundle he held in his suitcase or other bag. I mean the simple Date Painting complements the ornate building.

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If the artist was posting his Date Paintings to New York one at time, then he may have made use of the most noble of post boxes that you can see below, surrounded by polished marble:

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But I think it's more likely - if the artist had three or four Date Paintings of the same size, piled on top of each other and wrapped securely in brown paper and string bought from Woolworth's - he would have had to slide them through the hatch to a post office employee. After all, having been in Mexico before, On Kawara would have had the language skills to cope with such a face-to-face transaction.

From Post Office back to hotel to eat a meal with fellow hotel residents, to update his latest 'I MET' list, and to get back to the latest Date Painting. Well, no, there was no painting done on June 19. Besides, as the 'I WENT' map makes clear, On Kawara didn't visit the main post office that day. I would dearly like to peruse the other 'I WENT' maps for June of 1968 in order to work out how On Kawara did actually deal with the very definite challenge of how to get his invaluable Date Paintings from Hotel Monte Carlo, Mexico City, to either 340 East 13th Street, New York, or 65 East Broadway, New York.

But back to the Monte Carlo Hotel, in any case.


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Perhaps to have a shower. After all, the heat in Mexico City in June is not to be underestimated.


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Indeed, Evelyn Waugh once said that life in the tropics was unendurable, save for those few precious minutes in the day when one's body was under the blessed assault of a cold shower.

Having returned to my own trusty Monte Carlo Hotel base, I am going to try and ask - by email - those few people who surely know, one or two things concerning On Kawara's routine in respect of the finished Date Paintings while he lived for the six months in Mexico, all those years ago.

So I will leave this text for now. In the meantime, I have the entire month of July's 'I MET' lists available for me to analyse. Again, this is thanks to the On Kawara: 10 Tableaux and 16.952 Pages book, published by Dallas Museum, that is third from the right of this next photo.

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In several other ways, my portable library can help me with the puzzle of how On Kawara, that impeccable artist, sustained his practice while he lived from day to day in Mexico City through July, August, and September of 1968. And I will get on with that research, ASAP.

Oh, and I have the sun-swept streets of Mexico City to wander at my leisure, if I can stand it. Sun-swept or sun-kissed? I don't suppose I need decide on the most appropriate word for now.

TO BE CONTINUED…