For over five decades, On Kawara created paintings, drawings, books, and recordings that examined chronological time and its function as a measure of human existence. His artistic practice was characterized by its meditative approach to concepts of time, space, and consciousness. He began making his now signature date paintings (known as the Today series) on January 4, 1966 in New York City and continued to produce them in different parts of the world up until his death.
Since 1999, Kawara's work has been represented by David Zwirner. In 2012, On Kawara: Date Painting(s) in New York and 136 Other Cities marked his fifth solo exhibition at the gallery in New York, which presented over 150 date paintings selected by the artist. The show was accompanied by an eponymous, fully illustrated catalogue published by Ludion. Other solo exhibitions at the gallery include One Million Years (2009), Paintings of 40 Years (2004), Reading One Million Years (Past and Future) (2001), and I READ 1966-1995 (1999).
The artist started exhibiting in Tokyo in the early 1950s and his works have been included in numerous conceptual art surveys from the seminal Information show at The Museum of Modern Art, New York in 1970 to 1965-1975: Reconsidering the Object of Art at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles in 1995. Important early solo shows includeOn Kawara, 1973 - Produktion eines Jahres/One Year's Production at the Kunsthalle Bern and the Palais des Beaux-Arts, Brussels in 1974; On Kawara: continuity/discontinuity 1963-1979, which was first on view at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm in 1980 and traveled to the Museum Folkwang, Essen, Germany, Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven, The Netherlands, and the National Museum of Art, Osaka; On Kawara: Date paintings in 89 Cities, which toured from 1991 to 1993 to the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam to Deichtorhallen Hamburg, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; On Kawara: Whole and Parts 1964-1995, on view from 1996 to 1998 at the Nouveau Musée/Institut d'art contemporain, Villeurbanne, France, Castello di Rivoli, Turin, Museu d'Art Contemporani de Barcelona, Musée d'Art Moderne, Villeneuve d'Ascq, France, and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo; and On Kawara: Horizontality/Verticality at the Städtischen Galerie im Lenbachhaus und Kunstbau München, Munich and Museum Ludwig, Cologne in 2000 to 2001.
His epic project, One Million Years, is a monumental series of twenty-four works comprising One Million Years [Past], which was dedicated to "all those who have lived and died," and One Million Years [Future], addressed to "the last one." The Past volumes, noting each year over an entire millennium from 998,031 BC, were started in 1970 and took two years to complete, while the Future years, begun in 1980, were written over the span of eighteen years and finish at 1,001,997 AD. Together the volumes make up 2,000,000 years. The first audio presentation of One Million Years, where male and female volunteers alternate to speak out the dates, took place at Dia Center for the Arts, New York in 1993, and other venues have included Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris (2000); David Zwirner, New York (2001 and 2009); Documenta 11, Kassel (2002); Trafalgar Square, London (a continuous outdoor reading organized by the South London Gallery lasting seven days and seven nights, 2004); Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam (2010); BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead, England (2012); Jardin des Tuileries, Paris (organized in conjunction with FIAC by Galerie Martine Aboucaya and Galerie Yvon Lambert, 2012); Dia:Beacon, New York (2013); and BOZAR - Centre for Fine Arts, Brussels (2013). In 2017, a reading took place in the Oratorio di San Ludovico Dorsoduro, Venice as part of the 57th Venice Biennale [organized by Ikon Gallery, Birmingham, England]. Readings from the books, which directly follow on where the previous venue left off, will continue to take place. A recording is made on each occasion and is available on a CD.
Since 1998, the artist has exhibited seven date paintings at kindergartens around the world under the title Pure Consciousness. Amongst other locations, the paintings have been presented in Abidjan, Cote d'Ivoire; Leticia, Colombia; Toliara, Madagascar; Thimphu, Bhutan; London; Bequia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines; Yusuhara, Japan; Bethlehem; Tongyong, South Korea; and Brooklyn, New York, with future venues in Münster, Germany and new locations to be determined.
Starting at the Ikon Gallery in Birmingham, England in 2002, On Kawara: Consciousness. Meditation. Watcher on the Hills traveled clockwise around the world to a dozen venues including Le Consortium, Dijon, France, Kunstverein Braunschweig, Germany, Institute of Contemporary Arts, Singapore, and The Power Plant, Toronto, before ending at the Museo de Arte in Lima in 2006. In 2008, the Dallas Museum of Art presented a solo show that featured all of the artist's date paintings measuring 61 x 89 inches.
In 2015, a critically acclaimed, career-spanning retrospective of the artist's work, On Kawara—Silence false, was organized by the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York. Curated by Jeffrey Weiss, it marked the first full representation of Kawara's practice beginning in 1964. Also on view in 2015 was a solo show specially focused on Kawara's production in 1966—a pivotal year in his practice—at the Museum Dhondt-Dhaenens in Deurle, Belgium. A long-term installation of the artist's date paintings is on view at Dia:Beacon, New York.
Work by the artist is represented in museum collections internationally, including the Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris; Hara Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo; Kunstmuseum Basel; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Moderna Museet, Stockholm; Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo; Museum Ludwig, Cologne; The Museum of Modern Art, New York; National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; The National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo; Philadelphia Museum of Art; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; Tate Gallery, London; Toyota Municipal Museum of Art, Toyota City, Japan; and the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York.