When a person of note has passed from this world, we are often asked to observe a moment of silence. There’s a double sense to the verb. We are asked not only to add our silence to the silence being kept by others, but also to recognize the moment of silence, to focus our attention on it. The exhibition of the revered conceptual artist On Kawara, at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York through May 3, is titled “Silence,” and there’s a hint of the imperative in it. Kawara, who was born in Japan and settled in New York in 1964, died last July at the age of 81, and so the planned retrospective, “organized in close collaboration with the artist,” as we are assured, has turned into the moment of silence we should observe in his honor. But in Kawara’s art, the act of observing always cut two ways—following rules and conventions, albeit strictly ones he set himself, and then making sense of the consequences.
Kawara guarded his silence. He was one of those rare artists who never publicly commented on his work—no interviews, no manifestos, no statements. Yet a good deal is known about how and why he made art. One of his works is called I Met, and it consists of twenty-four big loose-leaf binders containing typed lists, slipped into plastic sleeves, of everyone he met each day from 1968 through 1979. He met a lot of people. On February 15, 1971, for instance, he met Hiroko Hiraoka, Konrad Fischer, Daniel Buren, Jan Dibbets, Ian Wilson, Bruce Nauman, Robert Ryman, Hanne Darboven, Sol LeWitt, Lawrence Weiner, Robert Barry, Richard Long, Mario Merz, Keiko Narahara and Ikko Narahara. This list is a roll call of some of the most prominent younger artists of the era. What was going on that day? An important opening, perhaps? Other days feature less stellar dramatis personae. But the variations between lists makes you wonder what it meant for Kawara to have met someone: Is the grocer’s name listed, the plumber’s, all the people who cross one’s path from day to day without their personal identities making much of an impression? Apparently so, but it can’t always be possible to know each person’s name. Will the list always be incomplete? Or can it become too complete? The most recurrent name is that of Hiroko Hiraoka, Kawara’s wife—but doesn’t it seems odd to speak of “meeting” the person you live with?
In the show’s excellent catalog, Anne Wheeler (who organized “Silence” with the Guggenheim’s senior curator Jeffrey Weiss) offers an anecdotal explanation of how I Met came to be. Kawara was an inveterate traveler. “His peregrinations brought him into constant contact with new people, and he at times had difficulty remembering unfamiliar Western names. As a result, he often asked people to give him their business cards or write down their names to help him memorize them,” Wheeler writes. “One day, struck by a name of Hispanic origin as written on a business card, he recalled a challenge posed to him by his friend Kasper König: write a poem that could be understood anywhere in the world. The name seemed to him a kind of readymade poem, comprehensible anywhere, and with König’s proposition in mind, he realized that the international language he’d been seeking could be found in names.” It’s a beautiful story—more so than the work it purports to explain. So much can be told about Kawara’s intentions, despite his ostensible silence. Like Socrates, he did not write—but he must have liked to talk, and what he said was valued and shared.