THEY GOT UP
NOBU FUKUI, HIROTSUGU AOKI and ON KAWARA



May 13, 2023

Yesterday I noticed that there was a 1976 'I GOT UP' postcard from On Kawara to Hirotsugu Aoki for sale. This is the pic that came to my attention:

Hv3CNfN8Tm2FLGFASTTddg_thumb_ee05
Reproduced thanks to the understanding of the One Million Years Foundation.

I had researched and written about On Kawara's 'I GOT UP' cards posted from Berlin in 1976 just a few weeks ago. For the period August 6 to September 16 of that year, I didn't know who had received the 'first' daily postcard, though Albin Uldry, a Bern gallerist, had been receiving the 'second' one.

I went on to write:
'It looks like eleven people got postcard one, of which I've identified seven, and eleven people got postcard two, of which I've identified another seven. Let's try and say something about those 14 recipients. Five were living in New York. That's to say, Ansell Bray, Frank Donegan, Kenzo Tatsuno, Richard Pugliese, and Ellie Siegel. Of those, Ansell Bray, Richard Pugliese and Frank Donegan were old friends of On's, and have already been mentioned in this narrative. Whereas On had only met Ellie Siegel once, when they shared a table in a café in Mexico City one afternoon in 1968.'

My essay then said this:
'No-one from On Kawara's inner circle of Japanese New Yorkers got cards, which is a bit odd. So I expect some of the unknown recipients were the likes of Hirotsugu Aoki, though clearly that is just an assumption.'

Quite a coincidence that this card turns up so soon after the posting of that text, but coincidences do happen. It's for sale from a Hong Kong dealer, Wangsim. I did a Google search and discovered that another card from the same batch - as many as 41 cards may have been sent to Aoki (as he is known by everyone) in August/September 1976 - is to be sold in a Tokyo sale on May 27, 2023, organised by SBI Art Auction. Let's see if I can bump up the value by posting this essay which, amongst other things, will make clear just how close Aoki was to On Kawara.

VbeoCcItSPGJOLcvGZIt5Q_thumb_ee07
Reproduced thanks to the understanding of the One Million Years Foundation.

Note the fabulous address. In 1975, Nobu Fukui - On's and Aoki's mutual friend - persuaded a number from their circle to take the opportunity of joining a co-op in order to purchase three run-down lofts that were for sale on dilapidated Greene Street. Aoki and his partner, Teresa O'Connor, ended up with the top floor at 132 Greene Street while On and Hiroko bought a loft at 140 Greene Street as did Nobu and his partner, Miyuki.

Hiroko and her family still live at 140 Greene Street, and so do Aoki and his family live at 132. But in 1979 Nobu had to sell his loft on the break up of his and Miyuki's relationship. Nobu has told me that as part of the settlement, Miyuki took the Date Painting that On had given Nobu, plus the 'I GOT UP' postcard, plus prints and paintings of many famous New York artists of the day. She moved to Japan and sold the art collection to a dealer. Nobu had to move out of Manhattan to a town in upstate New York where he continues to practice his art to this day. About which more later.

According to Nobu, he was only sent one 'I GOT UP' postcard, because On didn't like the way he had framed it. Had he framed it upside down or something? I'm not being facetious here. Nobu told me that on his 25th birthday, on June 2, 1967, Nobu borrowed On's templates and made a Date Painting on an orange background, the characters being displayed both upside down and running backwards. Something like this:

g6%vECUrSGWB5Wgx1MOybA_thumb_ea50

Later in 1967, when Nobu was going to Japan for several months and was giving up his rented loft, On and Hiroko offered to store his birthday Date for him. Upon Nobu's return from Japan, On did not give him back the Date. Mind you, Nobu didn't ask for it back, so maybe there was an unspoken understanding that Nobu had been in danger of somehow undermining On's project.

I don't yet know what the date of Nobu's single postcard was. However, I do know that Aoki was sent about a month's worth of 'I GOT UP' in 1970. I can only say this thanks to this image from
On Kawara: Silence, published in 2015:

VrTQR0zNS3ed2MCEIPMKRw_thumb_d201

As you can see, Aoki was living at 97 Crosby Street at the time, renting a Manhattan loft prior to the purchase of a loft at 132 Greene Street in 1975. When On and Hiroko returned to New York from South America on April 1, 1969, they first stayed with Nobu and Miyuki at 53 Greene Street for a week or so…

+m7FYmkLQfGQ8LaJe6h7GQ_thumb_ea27
Reproduced thanks to the understanding of the One Million Years Foundation.

…And then stayed with Aoki and Teresa at 97 Crosby Street. Therefore some of On's 'I GOT UP' cards sent in 1969 show his address as 53 Greene Street (see above), and some show his address as 97 Crosby Street (see detail of postcard below).

gj+xt9SfRwWAPteq7covKQ_thumb_e9cf
Reproduced thanks to the understanding of the One Million Years Foundation.

On Kawara, Nobu Fukui and Hirotsugu Aoki: a trio of New York artists. They were all born in Japan. Let me say something about the trauma each had in his background. I like to think that 'I GOT UP', although pertaining to the newly dawned day, also states something more fundamental and timeless:

'I GOT UP' FROM DEATH

'I GOT UP' FROM DISASTER

'I GOT UP' FROM CATACLYSM

Let me describe how they came to be together in New York…

1a. On Kawara was born in December 1932. He was not yet 13 when Hiroshima and Nagasaki were atom-bombed. The bombing turned him from a diligent and able student to a boy who, when asked any question in class, would reply: "I don't understand."

1b. Nobu Fukui was born ten years after On Kawara, in 1942. His trauma came when he was about to turn 12, when his best friend, a girl called Harumi, died after an operation. This is the central event in Nobu's troubled book
The Tama River, which was published in 2014, the year of On Kawara's death.

1c. Aoki was born in 1943. A traffic accident when he was 15 left him hospitalised with a brain injury. He survived, but he stopped growing. He graduated from high school, but admits he didn’t do much in the last year, in part due to the lingering effects of his brain injury.

2a. In 1951, at the age of 18, On Kawara went to Tokyo, where he suffered severe privations whilst living on the fringe of society, spending much time in bookstores in order to absorb Western thought. Eventually, he made it to New York via Mexico, where his father had an engineering contract.

2b. As for Nobu Fukui, it is clear from
The Tama River that its protagonist (Nobuo) was always going to be an artist. The book is well-written - constantly confronting challenging truths - and one suspects Nobu could have enjoyed a career as a writer. By 1963 he was studying art in New York.

2c. Aoki trained as a painter in Japan. After seeing a Tokyo show of contemporary art including paintings by Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns and Josef Albers, Aoki moved to New York in 1967 to pursue his interest in abstract art. Earning money as a carpenter, he painted and hung out with a lot of other poor artists. He thought if himself as a hippie.

Three very bright guys from Japan, with a shared background in trauma and
a mutual interest in visual/conceptual art. They met each other, recognised each others unusual qualities and forged strong bonds of friendship. It's the stuff of Marvel Comic superheroes, only for real.

On April 5, On 'got up' at Nobu's place at 53 Greene Street (red dot on the left of the red circuit in the map below) and the only place his visited that day was Aoki at 97 Crosby Street (top right of the red route). I can say this with certainty because it's what the 'I WENT' from April 5 unambiguously shows:

RRIzqrE1RDiXd7YTnv3oAg_thumb_ee14
Reproduced thanks to the understanding of the One Million Years Foundation.

The following map, created with Google Maps, shows On Kawara's route more clearly, from Nobu's loft (green circle) to Aoki's (blue circle at end of red line.) The map also shows where Aoki (second blue circle) and the Kawaras (red circle) live now (top of map), the area having greatly increased in value over the last fifty-odd years.

wYGMhHYdTBirhdmGBkQ5fQ_thumb_ee1a

As I write in 2023, Aoki takes his dog for a stroll every day, and he usually posts a single, daily photo on his Facebook page. He has been doing this for so long that it is easy enough to retrace On Kawara's route of April 5, 1969, using Aoki's published photos in the years leading up to 2023.

So let's start on Greene Street close to number 53, Nobu's old address. Aoki calls this 'Greene Street near Grand Street' on his Facebook page. The person on the left is walking north, so let's walk with them.

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_ee33
Published with the forbearance, I hope, of the copyright holder, Hirotsugu Aoki.

As we walk past 53 Greene Street, let me refer to what Nobu has told me went on there:

'The reason why On and Hiroko were in our loft, 53 Greene St, late at night often was that a group of us, Soroku Toyoshima, Hirotsugu Aoki, Takeshi Kawashima and some other Japanese artists were playing serious mah-jongg all night. On was the best player of all by far, and probably I was the worst. Quite often On brought a canvas and was painting DATE between the games.'

I then asked: '
I would like to picture the scene at 53 Greene Street during a mah-jongg party. Did women play as well? Hiroko and Miyuki, for instance? When would the tournament start? Early evening? If so, I can imagine On bringing an unfinished Date to your loft and finishing it before midnight. If the games were all-nighters would he sometimes finish one Date and then start a new Date in the middle of the game? Putting down the layers of a Date Painting requires little concentration and so I can imagine him doing this. The only bit I can’t really imagine him doing is the drawing of the numbers and letters, in my experience that requires an hour of concentration and is tiring."


Nobu replied: "Yes, women played mah-jongg also. Miyuki wasn't a good player and didn't play much, but Hiroko loved it and played as much as On. She was an excellent player. We started in the early evening, and On normally brought a painted canvas with the date pencilled out, all he had to do was to paint. Sometimes he came with a blank canvas, painted the canvas and played the game while the paint was getting dry. He used a set of plastic templates to draw dates with pencil. I didn't know, but I learned later that somehow he kept this a secret. Apparently he wanted the public to believe he was drawing freehand.

OK we are walking up Greene Street approaching Broome Street. Aoki often gets his subjects to smile. That may partly be down to his friendly and benign-seeming dog, Finnegan.


UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_ee38
Published with the forbearance, I hope, of the copyright holder, Hirotsugu Aoki.


At the junction of Greene Street and Broome Street, On would have turned right back on April 5, 1969. So let's do that. In other words we are walking in the opposite direction from these guys in the photo below.

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_ee2b
Published with the forbearance, I hope, of the copyright holder, Hirotsugu Aoki.


Aoki gets a dog's perspective on the street by getting down on one knee to take his shots from close to the ground. After which he gets up and strolls on…

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_ee16
Published with the forbearance, I hope, of the copyright holder, Hirotsugu Aoki.


So we're walking with Aoki and Finnegan along Broome Street. We've just passed the Mercer Street junction, so we are doing fine, as you can see from the map below.

wYGMhHYdTBirhdmGBkQ5fQ_thumb_ee1a

In a parallel universe, On Kawara is on his way to meet his good friend, Aoki, and all is right with the world. April 5, 1969. Are we halfway there yet? About a third of the way.

Next stop, the junction of Broome Street and Broadway. People carrying their takeaway coffee. I wonder if that was done in 1969. By the way, these photos look better on Aoki's Facebook page. He has an excellent camera and when you open up the images, full screen, they are full of delicious detail. A treat for the curious eye.

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_ee1f
Published with the forbearance, I hope, of the copyright holder, Hirotsugu Aoki.

Aoki's art has changed much over the decades. At first he was a painter. He may have made films for a while. He had some success as a stage-set designer for the film industry, using his carpentry skills in a creative context. But now he takes these evocative, uplifting photographs. Pictures of the streets he once walked with On Kawara and their peers when times were very different. I don't suppose that's how he puts it to himself or others, but that's how it strikes me.

Getting closer to Crosby Street…


UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_ee27
Published with the forbearance, I hope, of the copyright holder, Hirotsugu Aoki.


And now we have reached the crossroads of Broome Street and Crosby Street. Aoki favours taking photos looking south along Crosby Street, as below.

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_ee29
Published with the forbearance, I hope, of the copyright holder, Hirotsugu Aoki.


But for our purposes, to follow On Kawara that day in April 1969, we will be turning around and walking at an angle of 180 degrees to the line of the above shot.

This next one is at 39 Crosby Street. As you can perhaps tell, Finnegan is popular with dogs as well as humans.

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_ee3a
Published with the forbearance, I hope, of the copyright holder, Hirotsugu Aoki.


Moving north along Crosby Street, we pass number 54 where these kids are hanging out.

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_ee3c
Published with the forbearance, I hope, of the copyright holder, Hirotsugu Aoki.

We're nearly there. This is a hotel cum art gallery on Crosby Street, Crosby Street Hotel, and I think we'll go in there for a moment, passing Crosby the Cat.


UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_ee2f
Published with the forbearance, I hope, of the copyright holder, Hirotsugu Aoki.

From this reception lounge you can see the cat sculpture outside. I've come in here so that I can bring you up to date with Nobu Fukui's art career.

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_ee3b
Published with the forbearance, I hope, of the copyright holder, Hirotsugu Aoki.

In January 2015, Nobu Fukui had a show at Margaret Thatcher Projects. This gallery is located in Chelsea, mid-Manhattan, so the geography does not quite coincide, though it does mean that Nobu still has (or had) a toe in the upmarket art world. That's Nobu in the shot, looking great for a 73-year old as he then was.

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_e947
Published with the forbearance, I hope, of the copyright holder,Margaret Thatcher Projects and Nobu Fukui.

He began DELETE in 2014, the year of On Kawara's death. This project involved the destruction of all his paintings, one at a time. He smilingly destroyed one at the Margaret Thatcher Projects opening, by making four long cuts with a knife, following the edges of the frame, then removing the canvas. By the way, the surface is made of sparkling beads and colourful circles, but if you look closely there are all sorts of cultural references, images of artists and singers. Bob Dylan, Andy Warhol and Warhol's Marilyn crop up often. As do Van Gogh (himself and his pictures) and Cezanne, both of whom crop up in The Tama River, the aforementioned novel by Nobu Fukui that was published in 2014. In these paintings, he may be commenting on society's tastes but is also paying tribute to his own.


UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_e95c
Published with the forbearance, I hope, of the copyright holder,Margaret Thatcher Projects and Nobu Fukui.

Once the bare wooden board has been revealed, Nobu adds the letters 'DELETE' and then adds the date in a way that conjures up, for me, an On Kawara date. I think this reference to On Kawara is deliberate. In fact, I know it is. This tweet was made in September, 2014, a few months after On 's death.

DuJXB3YwRsKVWhlnBjnpXA_thumb_e968

By January 2015, the date of the show at Margaret Thatcher Projects, Nobu was deleting his 21st painting.

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_e942
Published with the forbearance, I hope, of the copyright holder,Margaret Thatcher Projects and Nobu Fukui.

This destructive process can be followed on Twitter. An assistant has been filming Nobu Fukui as he destroys further works.

YuREnhHmS+GvEDlsH%PWiA_thumb_e966

Of course, this is a creative action as well as a destructive one, otherwise why make a video of the process?


bA6pzaDVQ%mZSVsc7ItY5g_thumb_e969
Published with the forbearance, I hope, of the copyright holder, Nobu Fukui.

The DELETE videos came to an end at the beginning of 2020, long before all his paintings had been dismantled, so I asked Nobu about this. He replied:

'My
DELETE project was interrupted by Covid. My one and only assistant who was doing everything; taking pictures, videotaping, making digital templates for posters etc, got quarantined with her parents and 10 siblings in March 2020. Now she has a full time job somewhere. I live in upstate NY, and I can't find a skilled assistant to replace her.'

Has the destruction of his life's work gone on regardless? I don't know. Let's get out of the gallery and walk the few more yards needed to get us to 97 Crosby Street. As I've said, this is where Hirotsugu Aoki lived until 1975 when he moved into 132 Greene Street as the owner of the property. As Nobu told me: 'I helped to organise a three buildings co-op on Greene Street and urged all my friends to find, borrow or steal $15,000 to buy a great loft. On and Hiroko, Aoki and O'Connor and other friends bought in. I bought the 2nd floor at 140 Greene St. and On and Hiroko bought the 6th floor in the building.'

97 Crosby Street. Was that another place where all-night sessions of mah jongg took place? I don't know, partly because Aoki has chosen not to answer my questions about On Kawara. (Why should he answer my questions? On Kawara made no public statements about his work and allowed no photos of himself to appear in public.) I suspect things were quite primitive at 97 Crosby Street, there was no heating for example, so it may be that Nobu Fukui and Takeshi Kawashima took turns to be hosts. Nevertheless, I suspect On and Aoki and Nobu had many a long conversation about art and life in this building. But I don't know.

What I do know is that before the end of April 5,1969, On left 97 Crosby Street, Aoki's place, and returned to 53 Greene Street, Nobu territory. He retraced his route of earlier in the day, but he did cut off the corner between Crosby Street and Broome Street on the way back. At least that's how I interpret the day's 'I WENT'.

JuH+qd9JTqCX%OFD6WpSGg_thumb_d102
Reproduced thanks to the understanding of the One Million Years Foundation.


Back to 53 Greene Street, then. I wonder if there was an all night mah-jongg game due to begin on the evening of April 5th, 1969. Tama Art University is in the process of making available every 'I MET' from 1968 to 1979 and so I should be able to tell soon. For the moment, I'll finish this essay by quoting Nobu Fukui's vivid recollection of a mah jongg evening at 53 Greene Street from 50-odd years ago:

'A few times On Kawara was losing the game and he didn't stop playing and could not finish the painting. On these occasions he removed the canvas and put it in a trash can. Once he was painting, and it was getting close to 12:00 midnight. His concentration and intensity were mind-boggling to some of us watching him. The clock I had in the living area in the loft struck midnight. "Congratulations!" I said, the painting looked perfect to me. He stood up and said: "No good! It's one minute past midnight." He was looking at this big wristwatch on his left hand. I said. "Come on, I was watching the clock and you finished at least 30 seconds before midnight." No, I only trust this watch, it's perfectly accurate. He said that if he doesn't follow his own rules strictly, his work becomes meaningless.'

On Kawara's work become meaningless? I don't think so.

I GOT UP FROM THE ATOM BOMB.

I GOT UP AND KEPT GETTING UP

I GOT UP UNTIL THE LAST TIME

I hope Aoki and Nobu keep getting up for many years to come. But maybe Aoki selling his 'I GOT UP' postcards is a way of preparing himself for the end, which will certainly come, as it will come for all of us. Just as Nobu destroying his paintings is a way of saying. "It's all right death, deletion and oblivion, I'm ready for you."

But I don't know. It would be nice if someone could take a trip upstate to visit Nobu Fukui and see if he needs any help in his studio. I'd do it myself, but I live in Scotland, a long, long way away.

*

It is 1977 and On an Hiroko have been invited over to Aoki and Teresa's for the evening. This involves getting into an elevator, going down, walking a few yards, getting into another elevator, and going up.

Nobu is not there because Aoki knows that something subtle yet awkward has happened between Nobu and On, so that On is not sending Nobu any more 'I GOT UP' postcards.

Aoki shows On how he is displaying them and On stares at one postcard for a long time.

Hge2QjrCRyuHb05%zVbITw_thumb_ee08
Reproduced thanks to the understanding of the One Million Years Foundation.

Finally, On says: "Aoki, I don't like the way you've framed it."

Aoki looks long and hard also. "To tell you the truth, nor do I. I would prefer to see the message side of a card you sent me alongside one you sent Nobu."

"So would I."

"Why can that not be?"

"Ask Nobu."