On Kawara abandoned figurative painting somewhere in the early 60's and embraced a more conceptual art practice encompassing his central concerns with time, space, consciousness, life and death. Much of his work centres around his preoccupation with time and its function as a measuring tool for human existence. He meticulously recorded time (his time) and its passing by adopting various methods of recording the fact of his existence through postcards announcing he "got up at", "i am still alive", "i went", "i met", "i read" and "Date" paintings rigorously completed the very same day otherwise trashed. His great work consists of books filled with chronological date listings for "one hundred years" and "one million years." These were read in turn by two readers sitting in a glass booth in the gallery and audible throughout the whole gallery space. The sheer singularity of focus and consistency in his practice is enough to convince me of his greatness. In fact, there are only a few artists that i'm aware of that were as consistent daily in their practice as On Kawara.
I'm willing to wager that his pre-occupation with, "still being alive" is indelibly linked to the unspeakable horror of nuclear destruction in Japan. Somehow the artist put the shock and devastation behind him and birthed a quiet phoenix from the ashes of his past which continues to rise in its importance to the conceptual/biographical art of the late 20th century.
I'm still trying to position myself in relation to his work but i believe i'm closer to seeing that link than before. I see the transcendence in his daily confessions. I got up, i read, i met, i went, i'm still alive, are all statements affirming triumph over anonymity, insignificance, banality and death. These are bold assertions declaring, "I tried", "I took action and refused to give in to the daily entropy pulling me down and threatening to erase the memory of my life." I see these artworks as an encouragement to all, to try again, never give up, make something out of your life. This is the "existent residual humanity" in his work and it offers hope to all.
On Kawara may be gone but his work is sheer poetry, a beautiful and exquisitely refined succession of visual Haiku declaring, "See, i am still alive."