It’s pretty safe to say that Conceptual Art’s moment has come and gone. Now that we are living in a period in which virtually all art is expected to be “conceptual” in some way or another, it’s refreshing to look back at the origins of Conceptual practice. On Kawara is one of the leading figures of this movement; he is particularly known for his ongoing Today series―iconic canvases painted black, each bearing the date of its own particular creation in bold white block letters. In 1997, Kawara recontextualized seven of these austere works by placing them in kindergarten classrooms across the globe, a social project he titled Pure Consciousness. Since this project existed strictly as a social experiment, the current exhibition in the small overlook gallery of San Francisco Art Institute’s Walter and McBean Galleries modestly showcases the project’s associated ephemera, including a collection of booklets created to document it and the seven paintings themselves.
Kawara is largely known for his sweeping but understated gestures that mark the passage of time. Sometimes these marks are diaristic, other times matter-of-fact. The Today paintings strike me as both―they are personal, in the sense that each is reminiscent of the artist’s hand and reflective of the way he spent a particular day of his life (following his own self-imposed requirement that each one be finished on that given day). But they are also universal, in the sense that anyone can imbue them with his or her own personal associations with that particular date. Aesthetically, they are stark and exact, appearing more like prints than paintings. In this way, Kawara flirts with Minimialism, as well as with the basic principles of graphic design.
Pure Consciousness borrows its title from a quote by Leo Tolstoy; it refers to the stillness of one’s sense of self in relation to the constant passage of time. It’s a Zen-like idea that advocates for paying attention to something as basic as time passing. The title also refers to the notion that children possess a “pure consciousness,” and are more open to absorbing the ideas and images they learn, hear, and observe. This, of course, is the beauty of the kindergarten classroom, the setting for this conceptual project.
The booklets included in the show document the bustling kindergarten classrooms, the seven paintings hung above the children’s heads like a row of clocks or single-day calendars. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of these photos is the similarity among these groups of five-year-olds, across the world. Their commonalities emphasize the universal ways we, as humans, measure the passage of time, as well as the international standardization of pedagogy.
The paintings depict January 1 to 7, 1997, and thus could be used to learn to count from one to seven, to learn the days of the week, to learn that January is the first month of the year, etc. Kawara has cleverly translated his signature obsession with the methodical recognition of time passing into a tool that could be—and probably was—used by these students and the teachers who shaped them.
This project also makes an unstated connection between the standardization of education and that of art practice. Thumbing through the booklets, the Bauhaus immediately came to my mind—specifically the idea that design, art, and architecture all have important functions in society. Modernism, on a larger scale, championed a particular aesthetic as the most sophisticated and evolved. We are now able to look back on the rise and fall of that movement and see it as a specific perspective. Yet there was a time when Modernism was the final word in art. This observation, I hope, might challenge us to see education as an ever-evolving system and experiment, much the same way that art has always been.
Because the nature of this project is so purely conceptual, I am moved to wonder why it would be shown in a gallery context. As an exhibition, “On Kawara: Pure Consciousness at 19 Kindergartens” does not lend much new meaning to the work itself, except perhaps to bring Kawara’s gesture full circle. It began in an art context (his studio), moved out into the world (the global kindergarten classrooms), and is now back in the realm of art (the gallery). Seeing the paintings hung in a row in the gallery, as they were in the classrooms, is a poetic reminder that this gallery also exists in a school―SFAI. I wonder if Kawara would appreciate the implication that art school, too, is a system always worth re-imagining.