GAME ON (34)

THE ARTIST IS PRESENT




ONE

It's gradually been dawning on me how important a certain show of On Kawara's was, and how motivated I am to write about it: 'On Kawara: Appear-Disappear'.

What do I want to focus on? Several things. The show itself in Cologne from August 26 to October 8, 1995. What the show means to me now, in January, 2024, nearly thirty years later. What the show might have been if its potential for performance and installation had been pushed further.

Of course, On Kawara may not have wanted to push the installation side of the exhibition any further, never mind the performance element. It's all up for imaginative exploration and quasi-fictional discussion. At least it is for me.

Okay, let's set the scene. The director of the venue (Kolnischer Kunstverein: Cologne Art Association) was Udo Kittelmann. I've tried to track him down but have not yet managed to do that. So I haven't had the chance to ask Udo whether the unique structure of the show was his own curatorial idea or essentially On Kawara's. That is quite important. I've just written to him care of an institution he has links with and if I get a reply then I dare say this essay will need changing.

The show consisted of 24 Date Paintings, all painted in Germany between Kawara's residency in Berlin in 1976 and Cologne, 1995. But here's the thing. Not every day, but on a dozen occasions, the oldest painting would drop out of the exhibition and a new one, painted that same day, would be added. My God, visions of On Kawara, carrying a Date Painting, popping in and out of the gallery fly to mind. This being the artist who wouldn't turn up to his own private views in case his presence distracted visitors from the work itself.

What actually happened in Cologne? To explore that, I need to make use of the published photos and texts concerning the show. Well, I have two sources at my disposal. The six pages of photos that On Kawara included in his book
Whole and Parts, published a year later, in 1996. And On Kawara: Appear - Disappear, the small but exquisitely collectable book (still available from Cologne Art Association at original price) that was published two years after the show, in 1997.



TWO

As I say, the book,
Whole and Parts, dedicates six pages to the exhibition but in not one of the photos is it obvious what any of the Date Paintings are. What I mean is, you cannot make out the Dates without use of a magnifying glass. The first double-page looks like this:

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Reproduced with the forbearance, I hope, of les presses du réel.

All that page tells you, in German, is that the exhibition was called 'Appearance - Disappearance' and that it was shown at Kolnischer Kunstverein, Cologne. It also says that the photographs were taken by Udo Kittelmann.

The second double-page has no words on it, only indecipherable Dates. It is left to the reader to realise that if you take the 3 + 12 Dates from the first double-page and add the 6 + 3 Dates from the second, then you get a total of 24 Date Paintings.

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Reproduced with the forbearance, I hope, of les presses du réel.

The third and last double-page is even odder. On the left is this photo:

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Reproduced with the forbearance, I hope, of les presses du réel.

At least it shows (on the left) that for this exhibition the whole newspaper printed on the historic day, part of which was used to line each Date Paining's box, was available in the gallery for the visitor to peruse.

And on the right of the third double-page is this similar photo:

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Reproduced with the forbearance, I hope, of les presses du réel.

But where has the door gone that one can see in the photo showing the visitor in the brown jacket? Does the fact that the door disappears in this last photograph somehow explain why the same door (flanked by two radiators) is seen in a photo on the left of the second double-page spread, a photo that contains no Date Paintings?

The explanation (I eventually realised) is that the penultimate photo must have been flipped on its vertical axis. This is how it 'should' have appeared:

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Reproduced with the forbearance, I hope, of les presses du réel.

But would the documentation of such a meticulous show be so slapdash? Not if On Kawara was responsible, but he only 'proposed' the book, Whole and Parts. The tome was actually edited by two other individuals, based in Dijon, who may not have seen the show in Cologne and who had an awful lot of other shows to document in the 700 pages put at their disposal. So one can't be too critical.



THREE

Perhaps it was the appearance of the show's documentation in 1996 that prompted either On Kawara or Udo Kittelmann to arrange a publication devoted to the 1995 exhibition in 1997, an exhibition that had moved to Japan for a second showing.

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Reproduced with the forbearance, I hope, of Kolnischer Kunstverein.

So collectable, this little book. And, as I mentioned, still available at cost from the Cologne gallery that co-published it. At least it was in 2022 when I first wrote about the show rather tentatively.

The book begins with the reproduction of a Date Painting big enough so that you can actually read the date in question:

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Reproduced thanks to the understanding of the One Million Years Foundation.

Also, by the inclusion of a diagram and daily lists of paintings, all ambiguity is stripped away. But because I've told you, dear reader, about the ambiguities introduced in
Whole and Parts, I've added two arrows to the published diagram you can see below. Arrow one points to the visitor in the blue jacket. Arrow two points to the visitor in the brown jacket and the phantom doorway. What could be clearer?

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Reproduced with the forbearance, I hope, of Kolnischer Kunstverein.

So with the paintings 1 to 24 marked on the above diagram, let's see what those were at the opening of the exhibition. Though I should say first that before this forthcoming list in the book, there are seven pages of photos of the walls, each showing three or four illegible Dates. Starting with 1, 2 and 3 and going clockwise round the gallery until ending with 22, 23, 24. You get the impression that someone was trying to be rigorous to a fault, even if a certain obscurity was also part of the deal. Anyway, here is the list of Dates when the show was in its initial state. The size of the painting, where it was painted, and the name of the newspaper that had been bought in order to line the Date Painting box is also listed.

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Reproduced with the forbearance, I hope, of Kolnischer Kunstverein.

As you can see, the first 14 Dates had been painted nearly twenty years before, in Berlin. That is, one out of two Dates made in March, 1976; one out of three made in April, 1976; none out of six made in July, of that same year; the first six out of seven made in August of 1976; two out of three made in September; none out of eight made in October; and three out of four made in November, 1976. On Kawara's Berlin residency continued until the end of February, 1977, and the single Date he painted in February was also included in the Cologne show. In other words, a substantial proportion of all the Dates On Kawara made in Berlin were on display in Cologne. After that, there was a single Berlin Date from 1986, from a time when On Kawara was invited back to Berlin and made six Dates in all, commemorating the ten-year anniversary of his 1976 residency.

After that there were two Dates from Dusseldorf (1991 and 1994) and two from Wien (both 1991). I think of this as the 'middle' of the show. Neither old Berlin nor live Cologne.

The remainder of the show consisted of Dates painted in Cologne beginning on August 12, 1995. Those five Dates were finished several days before the opening of the show on August 26. No pressure on On Kawara, then. Not at the beginning of this delicate and delicious exercise.

Before we move on to the second phase of the show, with one new painting, I should say that there were certain cities in Germany where On Kawara made Date Paintings that were not included. On Kawara painted ten Dates in Stuttgart in January of 1989, five of which ended up in the Walker Art Centre, Minneapolis, and five with the Froehlich Collection in Stuttgart itself. Perhaps it was too expensive to borrow these Dates for the Cologne show. And if it wasn't intended to be a comprehensive set of German Date Paintings - or at least German cities where On Kawara had made Date Paintings - then there would have been no pressing need to borrow them. Also missing were Dates made in Frankfurt, where Kasper K
önig lived when he moved from New York in 1979. I think that was a significant omission as Kasper König was important in the development of On Kawara's career, just as Konrad Fischer in Dusseldorf was. Not for a single moment do I think that Kasper refused to co-operate with the premise of this show. On Kawara may have been relaxed about the German side of things, having other aspects of the curation he was more concerned with. So let's leave the question of 'How German is it?' and move on.

First, an aside. On had painted in Barcelona in 1990 from January 9 to January 13, and had entered these paintings in the Barcelona show 'Timespan', which was open from January 19 to February 25, 1990. But this Cologne exercise was taking the 'performance' aspect, and the site-specific context, a step further. For as the show went on, On Kawara continued to live and paint in Cologne, and every few days a new Cologne Date would be added to the show and an old Berlin Date would be taken away from it. As I'll be discussing in more depth shortly.

In this way the number of paintings (one added, one subtracted) remained at 24. Just perhaps, this was saying something about memory. How many days can we remember in any level of detail? As we create memories in the new day, do the memories of an old day have to fall away in order to make room for the new? The number 24 also reminds me that there was something similar going on in 'On Kawara: Again and Against' from 1991 and into 1992. That show consisted of 23 On Kawara Dates and 24 paintings by other artists, until Sydney, the fourth of four venues, when a 24th Date from 1989 was added to the existing 23 Dates. So let's bear that in mind. It's as if On Kawara had been on the point of involving a site-specific element in his shows for some time but couldn't quite take the plunge.

Let's cut to the chase. The fascinating thing is that On Kawara was Date Painting 'live' in Cologne. The five most recent paintings had been made just before the opening of the show. Quite tantalising that. You almost think that On Kawara was going to appear at the opening carrying the day's Date Painting. As the riveted audience looked on, he would remove the oldest Date from the wall, move 23 Date Paintings one hook back, and hang the brand new Date on the 24th hook. Spontaneous applause in the white cube! Everyone may be an artist, but On Kawara was
the artist!

Of course, it didn't happen that way. The fact that On Kawara was alive was to be evidenced by his body of work, not his everyday self. But it's interesting that On Kawara introduced the possibility of being present in the gallery, given that he was present in the city.

However, a complicating truth is that On Kawara took the opportunity to take a trip to Reykjavic, Iceland, a new city for him, where he made Date Paintings on the 26th and 27th of August, 1995. In the language of the city, of course: ÅG not AUG., is as near as I can express t using this keyboard.

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Reproduced thanks to the understanding of the One Million Years Foundation.

Perhaps On had accepted this invite some time before and realised he could incorporate it into his Cologne ambitions and itinerary. Also, it made it easy to miss his own private view which he would have been doing in any case.

Back to the opening of the show in Cologne, probably on the 27th of August, but possibly the 28th.

Visitor 1: "On Kawara is in this very room."

Visitor 2: "Actually, all we can say is that he is in Cologne."

Visitor 3: "Ha! - he has flown to Reykjavic."

Visitor 1: "How do you know that?"

Visitor 2: "Yes, answer that if you would!"

Visitor 3: "The director of the gallery, Udo Kittelmann, just told me."

On Kawara was back in Cologne in time to paint
3.SEPT.1995, which was installed that same day. Though I imagine its incorporation into the installation was made after the gallery had closed to the public (after all it had to be painted first). Though I can't help imagining it this way… Gallery closes at 5pm. On Kawara enters the gallery. Takes down the earliest Date Painting, 24.MARZ,1976, then moves all the others one place back towards the start, thus creating a gap at the end of the show. On the free hook, he hangs his handiwork of earlier in the day: 3.SEPT.1995. Giving this:

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Reproduced with the forbearance, I hope, of Kolnischer Kunstverein.

If not in quite that manner (no doubt gallery staff made the change), the same thing happened on each of the next six days. That is, September 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 and 9 all saw a change of date as the oldest painting left the building and a brand new one was installed. Let's pause at September 9, 1995. Now there was on display only seven Dates from Berlin in 1976/77. The main component of the show was now the twelve Dates painted in August and September of 1995. The show has tipped from retrospective to contemporary!

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Reproduced with the forbearance, I hope, of Kolnischer Kunstverein.

I feel a pang of regret. What's that all about? It's because when On Kawara was in Berlin he was in the midst of his eleven years of doing his daily self-observation series: 'I GOT UP', 'I WENT' and 'I MET'. Think how great it would have been if On Kawara had resurrected those for the duration of the show in 1995. A chance to send a batch of 44 postcards to one or more of his German friends. Kasper Konig, Konrad Fischer, Max Hetzler, etc. But the second card would surely have gone to New York. 22 cards to Akito Kawahara followed by 22 cards to Sahe Kawahara. Yes, it would have made so much sense to include his children. And the daily 'I WENT' maps would show where On was staying in Cologne and to what extent he varied his route from hotel room to gallery each day. Perhaps the studio where he slept and painted was even in the same building as the exhibition space. That would have been a practical arrangement. Then the mad trip to Reykjavic. A red line taking On Kawara from the airport to his hotel in the Icelandic capital. Who did On Kawara meet in Iceland? Well, that would be laid bare by the 'I MET' for those days. Icelandic names or German ones? I'm imagining all of On's German gallerists going with him to Iceland so that Udo Kittelmann was left saying "Where the hell is everyone?" on the night of the opening in Cologne.

Back in the room. There were further changes to the show, but less frequent after that. So 12 September and 14 September had a new painting added and one taken away. And there I must pause. For a lecture on the art of On Kawara was given at the gallery on September 14, 1995. Was On Kawara there to hear it? It was Professor Takashi Hiraide that delivered it: 'The Revolution of the Moment. On Kawara as Language.' A transcription covers 16 pages of the catalogue, in German, and a further 17 pages in Japanese. Alas for me, the lecture is not translated into English. This makes me think that Kasper Konig really did remain out of the loop for this show. I say this because he had always ensured that On Kawara publications that he was concerned with were printed in German and English, with half an eye on the international art market, centred on New York. And when he went on to publish the superb
On Kawara: horizontality / verticality in 2000, the essays were in German, French and English.

Back to Cologne in 1995. 23 September, 25 September and 2 October all saw a re-hang, to facilitate the introduction of a new Date and the removal of an old one. After October 2, there were no more changes. So this was the final state of the show from October 2 until
On Kawara: Appear - Disappear closed on October 8:

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Reproduced with the forbearance, I hope, of Kolnischer Kunstverein.

Berlin, 1976/77, was just hanging on in there. While seventeen of the twenty-four Date Paintings were made that summer/autumn in Cologne. Out with the old; in with the new. Berlin was so Cold War, Cologne was so burning
hot.

Of course, that is hyperbole, with the fall of the Berlin Wall, Berlin had become a magnet for artists and
a cultural melting pot. It was probably the coolest city in Europe at the time. But why shouldn't Cologne try to muscle in on that energy, that vibe? Good for Kolnischer Kunstverein, I say.

Let's be clear. Cologne was and is a university town, a culture capital and one of Germany’s largest and most liberal cities. A great place for a laidback urban break. And, best of all, venue for one of the most original On Kawara exhibitions ever staged.

Enough said. Nearly.



FOUR

Now let's come at this from another angle. If On Kawara could take his 'Appear - Disappear' to Reykjavik, then I can take it to London. What am I talking about? Let's take this slowly.

It was in the summer of 1992 that I saw 'Date Paintings' and 'One Million Years (Future)' at the Lisson Gallery near Paddington in north-central London. The conjunction of four lived days (from 1991) and all those typed pages of years that I would never experience, had a huge impact on me. Congratulations to artist and gallerist and all concerned. A great show.

Now that had been the third of On Kawara's solo shows at Lisson Gallery. The first show had been in 1978 and had consisted of Date Paintings from 1977 (most of them red as this was in the lead up to Akito's birth), plus postcards to Nicholas Logsdail from 1975. The second show was in 1985 and consisted of Date Paintings made in 1984, including one room which was hung with a week's worth of Date Paintings from October, 1984. And the third show was the amazing one that I saw, which also included 'I AM STILL ALIVE' telegrams to Nicholas Logsdail from 1992.

Now here's the rub. There was no fourth solo show. Why on earth not? On the basis of what was happening in Cologne in 1995, there should have been a fabulous show in London around that time. Say in the summer of 1996, when On Kawara was in New York working on the compilation of
Whole and Parts.

I think I know what happened. At least it's what I've been told by someone in On's inner circle, and it's consistent with my own observations and feelings. On Kawara became bored with the curatorial initiatives of the Lisson Gallery. He was asked to contribute to the 25th anniversary of the gallery's inception, or something along those lines. On wanted more than that by way of curatorial ambition. And so no more came of the Lisson/On Kawara association. The mind boggles at the carelessness of such a cutting edge gallery. They had on their books one of the most original artists of all time and they neglected that asset. Nicholas Logsdail, or his team, let On Kawara fall through their fingers and in doing so deprived a London audience of seeing any more On Kawara shows. Though I don't suppose Logsdail can be blamed for the fact that no other commercial gallery in the UK took on On Kawara. Anyway, that would have been the end of all appearances of On Kawara in the UK if Jonathan Watkins - moving from Australia to the UK in the late 90s by which time he had already met and worked with On Kawara - hadn't commissioned a large public show of On Kawara's work for the Ikon, Birmingham, in 2002.

But the mid-90s opportunity was missed. And that was exactly when I was scouring the streets of London for art to engage with for what would become
Personal Delivery. Talking of which, one of the shows I did pick up on featured an installation made by an artist as committed to process and material as On Kawara. His name is Carl Von Weiler. Here is an image of the installation he made in a house in the East End of London.

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Reproduced with the forbearance, I hope, of the artist, Carl von Weiler.

What I'm thinking now was that this could have been where On Kawara was painting his Dates in Cologne. In other words, let's imagine that Carl von Weiler had been commissioned to create a Date Painting space that would accommodate both the painter and the viewer. The viewer, sitting on the chair, would look through the slot and see the table where the days's Date was being painted. The visitor might even be lucky enough to consider a back view of On Kawara as he painted. And if he walked along the corridor to the room at the end, he would come across the artist's bedroom. A little investigation would reveal that the bed, covered in a white sheet, was made of dry earth which crumbled to the touch. The artist slept on a bed of earth? Like a cave painter? So it seemed, in the summer of 1995, in the centre of Cologne.

Perhaps the installation needed another wall made from wooden planks so that the visitor could only look (through another slot) along to the bed chamber. After all, On Kawara was not regular in his sleeping habits. And when he was sleeping he wouldn't want to be disturbed by strangers. No-one does.

As for the room where On Kawara was expected to do his Date Painting, it seems dark. There would have to be an angle-poise light on the desk so that On Kawara could see what he was doing. Not much point in creating a space for the Date Painter to do his thing only to find out that he didn't have the most basic of resources.

Lastly, I think On would need access to the outside world. So let's assume a door out of the wooden construction. So that he could walk the streets of London - I mean, Cologne - whenever it took his fancy.

Carl von Weiler's installation cried out to be fictionalised in one way or another. It so left space for the visitor. In the pages of
Personal Delivery, I was the visitor and I was sitting on the chair. I put my hand through the slot in the wall and came across the reply to the questionnaire that I had sent out to various artists. This was Carl's considered (I presume) reply to my questionnaire:

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I got a reply from Tracey Emin. She scrawled:
"I don't understand why you have sent out this form, are you craving for attention?", as well as ticking several boxes. I got a reply from Bob and Roberta Smith, who ticked the single box: "GO FOR IT, DUNC!". I got a reply from Douglas Gordon who made his own witty box and kicked that out of the park. Indeed, I got lots of interesting and engaged replies. I'm now 'blaming' Nicholas Logsdail for the fact that I didn't even think of sending the questionnaire to On Kawara. When I was putting together my book, his art was entirely absent from London, so I couldn't engage with it. I couldn't engage with the wonderful world of On Kawara.

If I had sent my questionnaire to On Kawara at 140 Greene Street, I'd like to think he would have replied, as he did to Jean Pfaff in the 1970s. However, I might have had to tempt him with further box ticking options such as:

  • By making careful note of your getting up time and stamping it on a postcard.

  • By typing out a list of the people you meet every day.

  • By drawing a line on a map with a red biro, day after day, for eleven years or so, being a record of your daily movements.

  • By making Date Paintings with a blue, red or near-black background.

I don't think On would have ticked any of these personalised options. He would have thought I was trying too hard to get him onside. But I can see him stamping: 'BETTER CALL KASPER' on the bottom of the form and posting it to me.

Not 'BETTER CALL LOGSDAIL', please note, dear reader. Sadly that ship had sailed.



FIVE

I wonder if that last section is somewhat whimsical. But perhaps it's not whimsical enough. Let's get back to Cologne. Why don't I ask On Kawara straight out why he didn't push further the site-specific dimension of Appear-Disappear?

On: "What do you mean?"

Me: "You could have informed the audience that Dates were being painted in an adjoining studio."

On: "But they weren't."

Me: "But why weren't they? The adding of a new painting on several days was implying that you were painting in Cologne, so why not maximise that."

On: "If I had brought more attention to the act of painting, I would have taken away attention away from the painting itself."

Me: "You mean the cult of personality is a dangerous thing?"

On: "You would have to ask Joseph Beuys that. Or Andy Warhol. But let's just say that I wanted the meditative and egoless nature of the process to be understood. Consciousness is all. "

Me" Don't get me wrong. I love the Date Paintings themselves. It's because I like them so much that I'm interested in the person who made them."

On: "That is not my problem."

Me: "So why did you depart from your usual policy of only allowing Dates to be shown that had been painted in earlier years, not the year of the actual show?"

On: "Because Udo asked me to and I thought it would be worth a try."

Me: "And will you be pushing the site-specific and the performance aspect any further?"

On: "This conversation is reminding me of the drawbacks."

I realise that I am in danger of screwing up this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. So let's change tack while the artist is still being patient with me.

Me: "Can I tell you about the exhibition I would most like to have seen apart from several shows of your own?"

On: "You are too kind. Please do."

Me: "I have never been to New York. But in 2010 I would have liked to have been at the Museum of Modern Art to take part in The Artist is Present."

On: "Marina Abravomic."

Me: "Did you go along?"

On: "The queues would have been too long for a seventy-seven year-old man who had been smoking heavily all his life. And my face would have been photographed at the gallery, so that on the next day when reading the
New York Times, I would have been confronted with the image of an elderly, Japanese man that was captioned in such a way as to suggest to the world that this frail old man was all that was left of On Kawara… But remind me of the set-up."

Me: "The gallery was empty except for Marina Abravomic sitting on a wooden chair at a wooden table. Each visitor was given the opportunity to sit on a chair opposite her and meet her gaze. Talking was not allowed. The visitor could stay for as long or as short a time as they wanted. Marina was there all day. She had been in training for the durational performance for a year, and she needed neither food, water nor toilet break. The discipline of her process, the rigour and perfectionism, reminded me of your own work."

On: "The year's training would have extended to her emotions."

Me: "I'm sure you're right. I expect most visitors would have stayed a relatively short time, becoming aware that they were going to lose control of their emotions. For if you gaze into another person's eyes, then sooner or later this intimate act is going to bring to mind your mother, your father, your lover. Those few other people whose eyes you have really looked into. And not all of these people would still be around or even alive. Great warmth would be followed by great sadness. To have tears flowing down your face in front of a stranger is not something that most people would be comfortable with."

On: "The thing to have done would be to empty the mind. To be sitting there looking into the eyes of the other but being completely self-contained. Then one could have sat there all afternoon."

I hold that thought. On Kawara and Marina Abravomic sitting in the Museum of Modern Art in 2010. Both of them in complete control of their own emotions. Stalemate.

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Reproduced with the forbearance, I hope, of the photographer, Andrew H. Walker.

Me: "Maybe after some time had passed you would have allowed a little thought to come into your head. That you were conscious and that this person sitting opposite was conscious too. The miracle of two sentient beings being alive at the same time. 'I am still alive.' 'I am still alive too.'… 'I am still alive.' 'I am still alive too.'…'I am still alive.' 'I am still alive too.'"

On: "No, no, that would not work. Allowing the mind to have such a thought, even for an instant, would soon be followed by extreme emotion. The head would be on fire. And the situation would have been unsustainable."

Me: "I see. So that is why the artist was not present in Cologne in 1995. Better that the visitor stand staring at the latest Date Painting. The one made a few days before perhaps, a day that both the visitor and the artist had lived through from beginning to end. And as the tears flowed down the face of the visitor it didn't matter. For the artist could not see what impact their work was having on the visitor. The visitor could go with the flow of emotion and then, in due course, calm down again. Before moving on. Before leaving the gallery and getting on with their life."

I stand there for a long time, going over and over this scenario. Until I realise that On Kawara is no longer standing in front of me.

Elvis has left the building.


SIX

And time travelled back to where it all began in a loft studio in Manhattan.

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Reproduced thanks to the understanding of the One Million Years Foundation.

1966. What a year that was in the life of On Kawara. The huge studio gradually filling up with utter originality, otherwise known as Date Paintings, aka the 'Today' series.

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Reproduced thanks to the understanding of the One Million Years Foundation.

Until the artist felt he had no choice but to cram them on the walls of his inner sanctum, where he did the painting.

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Reproduced thanks to the understanding of the One Million Years Foundation.

Day after day, he would always find room around his day bed to squeeze in his latest Date Painting. No 'one-in /one-out' system applied in these gloriously mad days when On's cup truly ranneth over.

I think we need to call on Iggy Pop, circa 2023, to express the situation:

"You're strung out, Onny
Every single day
You're strung out, Onny
And you can't get away.

There are a few verses. But it's the chorus that hits home every time.

"You're strung out, Onny
Day after day
You're strung out, Onny
And you won't walk away."