Eat, Sleep, Paint, Repeat
Large parts of the UK entered a stricter, tier four lockdown today, and Christmas will look very different for millions of households. But even stuck at home I imagine enough festivity to provide a useful distraction from the daily trudge of lockdown WFH, remote schooling and self-isolation. No, the real challenge will arrive when Christmas has passed and early January opens a bloodshot eye to the New Year. Many will once again find it difficult to find hope and meaning in the hardship and tedium of lockdown.
“Whatever gets you thru the night / It’s alright” sang John Lennon, but it’s the days spent hunched over a laptop that can really hurt. If you’re lucky enough to have a job at the moment, you no doubt spend every waking hour staring at a screen, and your work/life balance simply flashes “Error” when you push its flour-dusted button.
I can’t say I have got lockdown right. Chronic disorganisation and fanciful thinking don’t instil much discipline. But one thing I have learned in lockdown is that doing something repeatedly, regularly and with purpose provides a great form of relief, and gives a useful simulation of control over an apparently useless situation.
On Kawara started his Today series — more often known as his ‘Date Paintings’ — on 4 January 1966, and completed his last in 2013. Each painting features the date of its creation and took the artist a single day to produce: if a painting wasn’t finished before the day was out, it was destroyed. When not being exhibited, the completed painting is stored in a handmade cardboard box lined with a cutting taken from a newspaper that day.
Some of the paintings are black, some blue. A few, around the 1969 moon landings, are red. Only the artist knew why. He marked each day that he produced a date painting on a vast One Hundred Years Calendar of his own invention using a system of coloured dots.
Alongside the I am still alive telegrams that the artist sent friends, or the I got up postcards that he sent every day to people all around the world, On Kawara’s Today paintings would seem to place him firmly in the Conceptual Art movement of the 1960s. Certainly, his One million years, two books that list every year between 998,031 BC and 1969 AD, and 1993 AD to 1,001,992 AD, would suggest the cerebral and systematic approach seen in the Minimal, or ABC art movements of the time.
But unlike the sole-function cardboard boxes that the artist made for his paintings, ‘movements’ are mostly clumsily-packed archive boxes designed to allow uncomplicated study. The corners of On Kawara’s Today paintings rise up and prevent the lid on the Conceptual Art box from lying flat, to the annoyance of many.
This is because On Kawara’s Today paintings have a distinct and earthy aesthetic that undermines any attempt to focus on the system adopted and ignore the object it inspires.
Each painting was created using the same painterly process involving four coats of paint, rubbing down and hand-painted lettering (no stencils), before being packaged in its box. Yet despite the same process of creation, each one is somehow different, and it’s not just the different date in the centre.
Shown all together in a space such as Frankurt’s MMK, some paintings stand apart from others, their confidence or, indeed, sobriety setting them apart. Much like staring into an endless starry sky, their evocation of time and space is rather beautiful.
For me, On Kawara’s Today paintings look different in lockdown. They point to the meditative process of creation; doing something — anything — regularly, but with purpose, as a means of escape or discovery. Doing so with ritual and seriousness of intent, or playfulness and experimentation. Making sense of the world while temporarily trapped inside, and managing time by looking at it anew. Whiling away a few hours without a boxset.