Twenty-two hours ago On Kawara’s Twitter feed published a single message: I AM STILL ALIVE. The account publishes that same message every day, and has done so since 2009. The updates are probably automatic, and not authored by the artist himself. He died yesterday at the age of 81.
The Twitter account was a take on a project, in which he sent a single postcard to dealers and friends with the text, “I am still alive” on it. It would stop only with his death. It was also a necessary reminder; On Kawara, famously never attended his own openings and was never photographed. He also never spoke about his work.
I AM STILL ALIVE, along with many other ongoing works about time, life and death, was a project I did not want to see end. I have never enjoyed being reminded of the inevitability of death and his life and work, in some small way, allowed me to ignore that.
Perhaps that’s why On Kawara’s death seems particularly poignant. Today, his “date paintings”—a series in which he inscribed a black surface with the date it was made in white—read less like time capsules than they do small tombstones. Every day has an end. So too does a performance and a life.
His most powerful work, One Million Years lists each year for the one million-year period leading up to the artwork’s conception and the million years that follow it. In 2009, New Yorkers were invited to read from this book in a sound booth at David Zwirner, which would record the voices of the city. For some reason, I couldn’t bring myself to head out there though. I was busy and life was hectic, but mostly, I just didn’t want to be reminded that time was passing me by. Now, I’m bothered that I didn’t take the opportunity to try and capture more of it. On Kawara spent a lifetime doing this, and he’s left us all a treasure trove of moments, now past, to reflect upon.