In the context of 1950s Japanese aesthetic theory, On Kawara's Death Masks can be seen a tool of agitation and provocation. Through these drawings, Kawara resisted the destruction of individual thought and action in the harsh social conditions of postwar Japan, seeking to return agency to the viewer in two ways. First, by warping his human figures in a metaphor of “material” objectification, Kawara aimed to provoke anxiety and thus spur the audience to social action. Second, by creating “imaginary objects” in the process of drafting the Death Masks, Kawara refused the guide of historical reference and prompted viewers to invent associations between his figures and social conditions. This series can be seen as providing a prototype for a new form of art, the “Printed Paintings.” Kawara, critical of the institutional form of art museums and galleries, sought to create a system of art that would directly invite creative responses to the original work and thereby achieve a new actualization of individual subjects and of society at large.

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