1992





I should say upfront that this piece was drafted on Feb.2, 2021. It was significantly added to - in terms of photos, not words - on 7 May, 19 May, 24 May and 4 June, 2021, and I am sitting down to add another layer of words to it on Monday July 19, 2021. That's quite a lot of dates to be going on with. And there are more to come.

An On Kawara show was on from May 8, 1992, until June 20, 1992 at Lisson Gallery near Edgware Grove in North London. I didn’t make a note of seeing the exhibition in my 1992 diary. Which is strange given that I was making entries most days, usually about the exhibitions I was attending, and the visit made a huge impact on me at the time. I record going to galleries on May 10, 11, 16, 19, 20, 25, 26, 28 and 30th. Indeed, I may have been to see the On Kawara show at the Lisson Gallery on Lisson Street on May 30, as I was in the vague area and went to seven galleries that day.

As for the following month, again visits to galleries on June 1, 7, 8, 9, 10, 13, 16 and 20. It’s just possible that I took in the On Kawara show on the 16th, as I was in the right general area of north-central London. That means that I visited exhibitions of contemporary art every second day of the month that On Kawara was showing. That’s quite a commitment to the
avant garde, if that phrase still means anything.

Am I going to mention that in the month of the On Kawara show I twice noted in my diary that I slept with Joanna? I think I mean for the very first times. I still remember travelling to her place on the bus late at night. My hand on her breast as we kissed. My mind full of anxiety and hope over the situation between us, emotions that are both long gone, though not forgotten.

As I say, the On Kawara show was hosted by the Lisson Gallery. A superbly designed building which I went on to visit maybe ten times a year for the next ten years, often in the company of Joanna. But whether I thought it so fine because of its intrinsic architectural qualities, or whether it consistently hit the spot for Joanna and me as consumers of cutting-edge art, or whether I always associated it with the mind-expanding On Kawara show, I wouldn’t like to say.

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The Date Paintings were on the lower ground floor. Four of them. As you went into the room,
May 7, 1991 and May 19, 1991 were hung on the back wall (furthest from the pavement outside, from which passers by could look down into the gallery). Going clockwise round the room, on the adjoining wall was a single painting, about twice the size of the first two, May 22, 1991. And on the wall opposite was a painting of the same size as the first two, June 4, 1991.

I don’t remember this arrangement, as such. I can describe it only because of the handout given to me at the time, listing the work, on which I scribbled a little diagram in pencil. Is it worth presenting? Yes, why not? The double line at the bottom of the page represents the window wall, The door to the room is top left. So that
May 7,1991 is the first painting encountered by a visitor.

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Upstairs is what I actually remember. That’s the gallery from where one can look down through the window-wall onto the street outside when needing respite from the artwork. A wooden table on which lay ten hardback volumes. The books collective title was
One Million Years (Future). Each book consisted of 200 pages, with each page logging 500 years. A human life, covering 100 years at most, would fit onto any one page with ease. In fact, page one of the first volume, starting in 1992 AD and going onto 2492 AD, would more than cover my own life. And so one flicked through the pages of that first volume, and considered the other volumes, and tried to get your head round all the time that would be there all right, but wouldn’t be there for you. A good time to walk to the window and look down onto the primary school playground…

Back in the room. In a glass box, was 27 picture postcards from the series ‘I got up at…’ These were from 1975, from the series which went on from 1968 and ended in 1979. On Kawara was quite a late riser, I noticed. Something I haven't changed my mind about. I also paid attention to the presence of five tele-messages stuck to the wall. Each said: “I am still Alive.” These were addressed to Nicolas Logsdail at 67 Lisson Street, which is where I was standing, The messages were from On Kawara, with dates from 23 February to 19 April, 1992, assuring the London gallerist that his artist was still very much alive as the time of his show approached.

Quite funny really. On Kawara still being alive, so that the show could go ahead in May/June of 1992. Not that he would be alive for much longer. Not even for a quarter of the first page of
One Million Years (Future).

When I could pull myself away, I walked back down the stairs and spent time with the individual Date Paintings. May 7, 1991… May 19, 1991… May 22, 1991… June 4, 1991. There is a poem by Philip Larkin called ‘Days’. 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 coats
Running over the fields.

I now realise that the pattern of paintings on display at Lisson was consistent with how On Kawara was working at the time. Or at least how he responds to small shows at commercial galleries. Large curated shows by the likes of Kasper Konig were a different matter.

That is to say, the paintings being from the year before the year of the show itself. I think maybe OK didn't like to lose physical contact with his Date Paintings until after the end of each year.

On Kawara first showed at the Lisson Gallery in April 1978. The ten Date Paintings on display then were from June to December, 1977. He'd visited London in May of 1977 and the Lisson Gallery crops up on an I WENT from then, and Nicholas Logsdail crops up on at least one I MET. So it seems the show was decided on in mid-1977 and would consist of paintings from that year. I'll dig deeper into this when I set out to write the 1977 and 1978 essays.

A second show was staged at the Lisson in May/June 1985 and consisted of paintings made in October 1984. At least there seem to be six of them in an installation shot that is all that's been archived by the Lisson. Four are definitely from October, 1984 and the two I can't make out almost certainly continue the pattern.

Regen Projects, based in Santa Monica, staged an exhibition of On Kawara paintings in 1991, the paintings being from 1990. Regen Projects, which is still going, has archived their Kawara show more fully. Two installation shots suggest a room displaying five paintings. By the way, the glorious cement float of a floor is reminiscent of the Lisson's luminous grey floors.

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Reproduced with the forbearance, I hope, of the copyright holder, Regen Projects.

The second installation shot begins where the first left off, at June11,1990:

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Reproduced with the forbearance, I hope, of the copyright holder, Regen Projects.

The works shown in detail are June11,1990, May10,1990, Apr.24,1990 and Sept.9,1990, But the cardboard box for Jan 4, 1990 is also illustrated in the Regen Projects archive, so I guess the corresponding Date Painting was in the show as well. I can't see On Kawara agreeing to separate Date Painting from box by any distance. They would travel together, from New York to California.

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


It's tempting to conclude that from left to right round the room in Santa Monica, it went Jan 4 (barely discernible from the first installation shot), May 10 (deduced), Apr. 24 (legible in the original), June 11, (legible) and Sept. 9 (legible in the original). However, that would not be correct. May 10,1990 is the same large size as June 11,1990, a size 'E' painting. And it would appear there was no such second big painting in the room. Jan 4 is a size 'B' painting, and so too is the painting further along the same wall as it. Besides, it would not be customary for the dates to be hung in other than date order. So again I venture to suggest that May10 was hung in another room.

At least one beautiful room of Date Paintings, then. Can any of the paintings be traced to subsequent books or collections? Well,
Sept.9,1990, was on a bedroom wall in Basel, Switzerland, on June 16, 2005, as the following photo from Candida Hofer's book confirms:

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Reproduced with the forbearance, I hope, of the copyright holder, Candida Hofer.

But back to May/June 1992 and my visit to the Lisson Gallery in London. When I got home I must have looked up my diary for 1991. Because alongside the four date paintings listed in the handout I have written exactly what it says in my diary for the relevant days:

May 7, 1991
4

May 19, 1991


May 22, 1991
3 ½

June 4, 1991
3
Salisbury (2)
External hoist. Roof tour. Evensong service. Pub.

That last word is the key to the numbers that begin all four diary entries. In those days I used my diary to record the number of pints, or pint-equivalents, I drank in any 24-hour period. A sort of “I am still drinking.” Or, thinking of 'I WENT' and 'I MET,' my equivalent in terms of self-regarding was 'I DRANK'.

The number ‘2’ in brackets after Salisbury is telling me that this was my second day trip to the Cathedral town in the footsteps of John Constable. And, on this occasion, I was able to get to the top of the spire he’d rendered so memorably in the painting that I’d scrutinised at the National Gallery in London.

Of more interest, perhaps, would be On Kawara’s ‘diary’ from those dates in 1991. I will try and piece this together as my research continues, albeit the I MET, I WENT and I GOT UP series finished in 1979. For now, I will just say that I suspect On Kawara was at home in New York City when he painted all four of those May/June 1991 paintings.

Actually, I can say a little more. The book
Date Paintings in 89 Cities, reveals that by June 30, 1991 Kawara was painting the date in Singapore. Moreover, the book On Kawara: June 9, 1991, shows a series of 31 photographs of On Kawara painting the date in his New York studio. He begun at 9.20am, and finished exactly 12 hours later. But the image hardly changes from the penultimate photo at 6.52 pm until the final one at 9.20pm, so one doesn’t really know how On Kawara was spending his evening. The photos all show the same part of On Kawara’s desk. An ashtray containing two cigarette stubs appears in the 2.25pm photo.

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Reproduced with the forbearance, I hope, of the copyright holder, Henning Weidemann.

There was no ashtray in the previous photo, taken at 12.18pm, nor in any of the previous photos. There is a third cigarette stub by the next photo, taken at 3.24pm and a fourth at 4.59pm. After that, the ashtray does not appear in the images.

Did On Kawara sip some quantity of alcohol as he contemplated the near-finished painting on the late evening of June 9, 1991? No, he didn't. I've heard from two independent sources that he did not touch alcohol. But let us revisit the Larkin poem, ‘Days’, in the light of such speculation:

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 me and On Kawara
In our respective addictions
Running over the fields.

Actually, that is beside the point. The text in the
June 9, 1991 book, written by Henning Weidemann, tells us that from 6.52pm to 9.20pm the following happened:

‘By continual, unnoticeable improvements on the outline of the writing a clear protruding ridge of the script is attained. The definition of the script from the background is now almost perfect. The date painting is now finished.’

And with the Date Painting finished, the day itself can begin to be enjoyed? The day has almost certainly been enjoyed since 6.52 pm, when the painting was close enough to completion to be giving satisfaction to the painter. Or is that wrong? For it is only through a knowledge of the painting's deficiencies that the painter was able to go on making it better. Better and better. But still not perch. Better and better. But still not perfect. Better and better. And that would have do. Because there comes time when the eye says things can still be improved, but the hand and brush are unable to carry out such fine manoeuvres.

And at 9.20pm? On Kawara could have spent the rest of his evening considering his accomplishment: the painting’s near-perfection. Or those minute deficiencies could have gnawed away at his peace of mind.

Back on May 7, 2021 (remember it is July 19, 2021 as I write) I embarked on my own first Date Painting. This would be the day after
On Kawara: Horizontality/ Verticality arrived, so It's when I was researching the first of the 1971 chapters that can be found earlier in this website.

I had read that On Kawara started off by giving his Date Painting an undercoat of burnt umber. I had a Liquitex tube of that colour at my disposal, but I went for one of his other favoured colours, ultramarine.


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After two coats of ultramarine, the picture looked like this:

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And after two coats of Payne's gray on top, the picture looked like this:

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It felt like a shame to have moved away from the ultramarine, but then most of On Kawara paintings of this period are near-black.
I wasn't sure if pencil would show up on the dark painting, but it shines through. Though I didn't take any photos of the drawn letters, so here is the appropriate stage in On Kawara's
June 9,1991.

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Reproduced with the forbearance, I hope, of the copyright holder, Henning Weidemann.

As you can see, On Kawara's technique is to draw two parallel lines to guide how far up and down the canvas his characters reach. But in what order does he pencil them in? Not enough photographs were taken on June 9, 1991 to give any clues. True, there were 31 taken, but it depends when they were taken. A lot of important action takes place in a relatively short space of time. Much of the six-hour process is simply waiting for paint to dry.

But On Kawara's process was photographed by the artist several times in the 1990s.
27Ott,1990 is represented by 16 photos on the Million Years Foundation website. Aug. 6,1992 by 16 photos in the Phaidon volume. Sept.5,1994 by 14 stills on a Youtube video, uploaded by the Guggenheim Gallery. And March 30,1997 by 68 photos in the Ikon catalogue of 2002. Two of these give clues as to the way On Kawara went about drawing the letters.

Here is
Mar,30,1997, part of the way through the pencil work. Obviously spacing is important to get right. So the first and last letter of 'MAR', the first and back number of 1997 are all put into place first.

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

And below is
5.Sept.1994, mid-pencil. Again the first and the last of the year have been drawn into place. But the first and last of the month have not been put in to begin with. Possibly because the whole thing starts with the number 5.

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

On the basis of these two samples, I'd guess that On Kawara put in place his first character and his last character, followed by the first number in the year. That would have given the artist a little leeway if the spacing got ever so slightly out as he went along.

By the way, note how relatively rough the pencil work is in
5.Sept.1994, he was clearly drawing the '5' and the 'S' by hand and eye. No stencil or other such aid. The characters would be made precise during their painting.

What about the order in which the characters were painted? This needn't be the same as the order in which they were drawn, as spacing is no longer the most important criteria. Yet with 9 June, 1991, Kawara does seem to have gone about the painting in the same order as described above.

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Reproduced with the forbearance, I hope, of the copyright holder, Henning Weidemann.

However, when one looks at March 30, 1997, it comes apparent that what On Kawara has started with are the verticals.

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Reproduced with the forbearance, I hope, of the copyright holder

However, that's no what he did on September 5, 1994. True, he started with a vertical…

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Reproduced with the forbearance, I hope, of the copyright holder

But why go on to the slinky curves of the S when there was still the straight-line 'T' to be filled in?

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Reproduced with the forbearance, I hope, of the copyright holder

The truth is, the artist would to some extent have deliberately varied the process depending how he felt on the day. Efficiency was one watchword, but stimulation would surely have been another. To introduce variety into what could become a stale process was no doubt important.

Let's see how these three paintings proceeded. In the case of June 9, 1991, On Kawara left the painting of the nines until last. He would have wanted to get the circular parts of each 9 identical, and that would have taken concentration. Date Painting brings to the forefront of one's mind that some letters and numbers consist entirely of straight lines, while others contain curves. And it's in the curves that things are more likely to go out of control.

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Reproduced with the forbearance, I hope, of the copyright holder, Henning Weidemann.

Similarly, with March 30, 1997, see below, the 9s have been left until last.

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Reproduced with the forbearance, I hope, of the copyright holder

And again on September 5, 1994…

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Reproduced with the forbearance, I hope, of the copyright holder

But before we get too prescriptive about what was happening, we can see from the image below that on 6 August, 1992, On Kawara went ahead and painted the year before touching any of the rest of the date. This was true also of 27 October, 1990.

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Reproduced with the forbearance, I hope, of the copyright holder

I find that discovery reassuring. It means that when one has a go at one's own Date Painting, one should just go for it. Which is exactly what I've done. After two coats of ultramarine, two coats of Payne's gray, an hour of close concentration with ruler and pencil, and then going back and forth between white for the letters and Payne's gray for making tiny corrections (back and forth, back and forth) to the background… we have this.

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And all before midnight. Long before midnight, as I want edto take photographs of the painting, post them on Twitter, have drink or two, and generally enjoy the situation. That's the difference between On Kawara, austere perfectionist, and me, playboy of the Western world.


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I will restrain the number of photographs that I reproduce here. Suffice to say that MAY7,2021 looks good in conjunction with anything.

Now what do we have here?


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As I said, I'm writing this on July 19th. Though, to be honest, time has moved on and it's now July 20, 2021. May 11, 2021 was an extra Date Painting (not part of the May 7, May 19, May 24 and June 4 scheme I had in mind in tribute to those same dates of thirty years before, painted by On Kawara, that so struck me that day in May or June of 1992 while visiting the Lisson Gallery.


For May 11, I reversed the background colours. Thus two coats of Payne's gray were covered by two coats of ultramarine. This was not entirely successful as I found that when making adjustments after applying the white letters, the ultramarine stood out as too blue. I had to mix some Payne's gray with the ultramarine in order to get a better finish. Though still not perfect. If you look closely you'll see what is effectively a band go Payne's gray around the white characters of May 11, 2021. Which reminds me that what On Kawara used to do was mix up enough of the exact colour he wanted as his background, and keep it in a jar that he would be able to access repeatedly throughout the day.

Meanwhile, I was still writing the essays that comprise the first part of this website. I had just finished the second 1972 essay when I embarked on the next painting.

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As you can see I had a little trouble with the first 2 and the 0 in 2021.But things worked out all right with the paint brush, in fact this painting is as good as any that I've done to date.

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May 24 was to be the third canvas in my Lisson '92 tribute. I had a horrible feeling while doing the pencil work that I should be painting May 22. I looked back at my files and, sure enough, MAY 22,1991 had been hanging in the Lisson all those years ago. How could I have made such a mistake?

What to do about it? Well, obviously May 22, 2021 was lost to me by then, so all I could do was abandon the painting or carry on with
MAY 24,2021. And as you can see I carried on with it. In certain respects, it doesn't matter.

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What had probably distracted me was my work on On Kawara's 1973. I mean the first phase of that travel-packed year. That was where most of my attention was going. My own Date Painting felt like a secondary endeavour, though I knew its time would come.

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So far I had painted size A pictures. Three of On Kawara's four at the Lisson were size B. And the other (MAY 22,1991) was size C. But I plumped for June 4 to be my bigger picture, and for it to be size D. My reason for going for sizes A and D was purely to do with availability of low-cost, made-up canvases in these sizes. So you see, dear reader, errors' creep in. This is not an exercise in meticulous copying. This is a game, which I'm seriously enjoying.

An old friend of mine has his birthday fall on June 4, so I sent photos of my Date Painting, on the day itself, and have promised him the Date Painting itself for delivery on 4 June, 2022. I'm not sure he quite followed this, and suspect he will be expecting a painting dated June 4, 2022, next year. Sorry, John, but you can't have everything. This year I gave you photographs of this year's birthday. Next year you get the real thing, but one year in retrospect. What you
can't have, is your cake and eat it.

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And so with the painting of June 4 I had my set of equivalents to the Lisson roomful. I set it up as best I could. Who needs a white cube when you have a wide, white window sill?

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It was last night when I set this up for the first time, because writing this essay has made me think of it. And to my delight I was joined in the room upstairs by On Kawara. We talked:

OK: "What do we have here?"

Me: "Oh, just the latest fruit of my six-month labour in your memory."

OK: "Why May 24?"

Me (shrugging): "My memory let me down."

"OK: "It should be May 22!"

Me: "Don't rub it in." And then to regain some initiative, "Why did you take a photographic record of June 9, 1991 and not June 4, 1991? If you had done the latter, then the Lisson could have published and sold the little book."

OK (ignoring my question and looking more closely): "Don't get me wrong - I am not here to criticise. I appreciate that you are playing a game. However, these are far from finished. They each could have done with another two or three hours of concentrated labour."

Me: "Not my style. In any case, it's too late now."

OK: "True."

And now it's tonight. I've spent the day adding a few paragraphs to this text and painting the date. I couldn't resist the fact that today's date is July 20, 2021. Three 2s to struggle over. And two 0s to mess up. Last night, before he left, On urged me on. But he also left me with a warning. That 'July 21, 2021' would come around very soon, and that it too would tempt me with its 21/20/21 pattern. "No, On," I told him. "I have other plans for July 21, 2021."

Anyway, here it is. It is only 7.27pm, so I have time to do a few more corrections. However, the three 2s are passable, it seems to me. As are the two 0s.

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Of course, On Kawara wouldn't pass them. He would have me sit at the table for several hours yet, making tiny corrections in black. Sorry, I mean Payne's gray. Then waiting half an hour before making tiny corrections in white. That just doesn't fit in with my chosen lifestyle.

Oh, but what a paradise it seems! Its consistently black beauty takes me back to that day in 1992 when I was in the summer of my one-and-only life and had just hooked up with the woman I would love for seven years, Joanna.

J for Joanna. Two thousand five hundred and fifty five days… Not strictly true as we would only sleep together on Friday and Saturday nights usually, sharing our weekends but living apart the rest of the week. Seven hundred and twenty-eight days, then. Though she was often on my mind.

I'm sure she wasn't actually with me that day at the Lisson gallery, which must have been a mid-week visit. So that was two important, separate things that happened to me in May/June of 1992. I first saw On Kawara's work and I first made love with Joanna.

I remember. The memories live on in a hazy kind of way. Today is sharp and I'm happy to be here.