On Kawara: DEC. 29, 1977, from the series “Today,” 1966-2013, acrylic on canvas, 8 by 10 inches, with artist-made cardboard storage box, 10½ by 10¾ by 2 inches; at the Guggenheim Museum.

From 1966 until shortly before his death in 2014, On Kawara’s artistic life was anchored by the simple labor of painting the dates of the days he lived through. Using sans serif typefaces and the language of whatever country he was in at the time, he meticulously rendered each letter, number and punctuation mark in white acrylic against monochrome backgrounds of blue, gray and occasionally red. He constructed a small box lined with a clipping of the day’s newspaper to hold each completed painting. If he failed to finish a given painting by midnight on the day it was begun, he destroyed it. By the end of his life he had painted over 3,000 such works, collectively known as the “Today” series, in eight standard sizes ranging from modest to grand. 

A selection of roughly 150 of these paintings forms the backbone of “On Kawara—Silence,” the artist’s first comprehensive retrospective. Organized by Guggenheim senior curator Jeffrey Weiss, with assistant curator Anne Wheeler, the exhibition also showcases several additional serial projects in which postcards, telegrams, maps and journals serve as records of self-observation. Together, the works reveal Kawara as a consummate artist of everyday life. Yet his concerns extended beyond the scope of his own quotidian dealings. This much is indicated by One Million Years (1970-98), a series of volumes whose pages list years stretching as far back in time as 998,031 BCE and as far into the future as 1,001,992 CE. Dedicated to “all those who have lived and died” and to “the last one,” the work has been recited live and circulated in audio recordings since 1993, when the artist invited readers to perform it in an exhibition at the Dia Center for the Arts in New York. Over the course of the Guggenheim show’s run, volunteers will recite the work three days a week, the performance audible as one approaches the museum on Fifth Avenue. 

The irony that one’s first encounter with “On Kawara—Silence” may well be auditory serves to highlight the ambiguities of the show’s title. Many viewers will associate “Silence” with Kawara’s well-known refusal to give interviews or otherwise convey any more about himself than the mundane details he incorporated into his art. For some, the word may also evoke the quiet or meditative quality of his practice. But silence, as philosopher Franz Rosenzweig observed, reflecting on the doomed protagonists of Greek drama, may also be a form of defiance in the face of tragedy—a thing of which there was no shortage in Kawara’s lifetime. 

The Japanese-born artist was 12 years old when the U.S. dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. His early depictions of dismembered bodies in tiled bathrooms were exhibited alongside works by the social realists who thrived in postwar Japan. The most obvious precursor to the “Today” series is a magenta triptych (displayed near the start of the exhibition) whose panels read, “ONE THING,” “1965” and “VIET-NAM”—a not-so-quiet allusion to the then-escalating Vietnamese conflict. Although the show’s wall texts are themselves largely silent on the question of sociopolitical content in the work, Kawara’s newspaper-clipping-lined boxes have been included alongside the date paintings, and the frequency with which the articles allude to war, death and strife is difficult to ignore. If we’ve been reading diligently, by the time we make it to works like “I Am Still Alive” (a series of telegrams, spanning 1970 to 2000, informing friends and colleagues of the artist’s continued existence) and “I Got Up” (a series of postcards from 1968 to 1979 announcing the time he awoke each morning), the everyday accomplishments alluded to seem less trivial than they otherwise might. 

Amid the atrocities of his era, Kawara seems to suggest, each small step by one man is a giant leap for mankind. True, some steps are especially momentous, as is attested to by three 61-by-89-inch gray canvases—the largest works on view—painted during the Apollo moon mission in 1969. But the basic acts of waking, working, navigating a city (as in the series of annotated maps “I Went,” 1968-1979), or spending time with friends are no less things to be treasured—or, in Kawara’s case, documented. 

The reams of pages comprising the series “I Met” (1968-79), which lists in chronological order the people Kawara encountered on a given day, reflect a social life that belies the asceticism sometimes attributed to him. On side-by-side pages corresponding to two consecutive days in October 1970, the final four names on the first page—Hiroko Hiraoka, Seth Siegelaub, Lucy Lippard and Daniel Buren—are the same that begin the next. One likes to imagine that the party stretched into the night.