The image above shows two firefighters carrying three of On Kawara’s monochromatic date paintings with white gloves instead of their usual fireproof gloves. Taken by Dominik Dresel, it spread quickly and was shared on social media by curators, collectors, magazines and others to express shock and sympathy when the Museum für Moderne Kunst (MMK) in Frankfurt caught fire on Monday, 29 July.
After the shock was over and an official press release stated that the fire had been extinguished, nobody was hurt and ‘the artworks are taken into safety and the exhibition space seems to be undamaged’, doubts about the image’s authenticity arose and people were looking for clues that would confirm their suspicion. The white gloves, the strange way the paintings are held and a supposedly old exhibition poster in the background provided ostensible evidence for the image as a fake.
People who are familiar with the MMK know that one room on the top floor of the Kuchenstück (engl. piece of cake) – as Frankfurters refer to the unusual triangular shaped building by architect Hans Hollein – is dedicated to On Kawara. At the time, the artist himself had selected the date paintings for the museum and had chosen one painting for each year, beginning with ‘7 February 1966’ and ending with ‘6 June 1991’: the date of the MMK’s opening. Shortly before his 2014 death, On Kawara made a special donation to the museum with nine further date paintings from the years 1992 to 2000 and completed the series of his works in the collection.
Since I’ve known the MMK, I’ve never seen this room changed. No matter how much the museum has evolved, how many artworks have been added to the collection, the date paintings have always been a constant. The cherry on top of the piece of cake. Seeing these paintings being rescued in such a gentle way, I never doubted the authenticity of Monday’s image. The firefighters support the paintings from the back and wear white gloves like art handlers would do while their thick black working gloves swing from their jackets. It shows why we trust firefighters with our lives, why artists give their works to museums and where the term ‘curator’ comes from: from Latin cura, meaning ‘to take care’. This photograph is way more than just a nice headline image – it exposes the fundamental task of every museum: care.