Counting Towards Infinity
by Stephanie Buhmann
The final number, which Roman Opalka (1931-2011) painted before his death on August 6, 2011, was 5,607,249, its color a light grey set against a light grey ground. It was his last notation, made after millions of others. He began counting on canvas in 1965, starting at one and heading towards infinity. His last number concludes one of the most unusual and ambitious contemporary art projects to date.
Opalka’s life work comes in the shape of a thrilling monomaniacal piece entitled “The Details.” It is comprised of numerous canvases (or details), all of the same size (196 x 135 cm). They are all also titled the same way: "Opalka 1965/1 — ∞." From the top left-hand corner to the bottom right, Opalka’s canvases are completely covered with arithmetic sequences. The tiny numbers, between 20,000-30,000 in each composition, are organized in narrow horizontal rows. Opalka used acrylic paint and a fine brush (No. 0), painting by hand and without the help of rulers. As a result, the opacity of each number can vary slightly and each row strays away minutely from a straight line. Opalka’s mission and method might have been formulaic, but his technique was far from mechanical. Each new canvas, takes up counting where the previous one left off, causing Opalka’s process to seem open-ended. “All my work is a single thing, the description from number one to infinity. A single thing, a single life”, the artist once noted.
Over the years, Opalka made slight adjustments to his ritual. While his early works feature solid black grounds and white numbers, he soon altered the palette in order to avoid any emotional or symbolic connotations. In 1968, he began to use grey backgrounds. He also introduced a tape recorder, speaking each number into the microphone as he painted it. In addition, he began taking photographs at the end of each workday. Each self-portrait is cropped the same way and shows him wearing the same white shirt and neutral facial expression. His paintings record the passing of time through the gesture of the hand. His recordings and photographs capture his aging process.
In the early 1970s, when he reached the one million mark, Opalka further stipulated that he would gradually lighten the background of each canvas by adding 1 % more white. Ad Reinhardt and Agnes Martin might have arrived at black towards the end of their lives, but Opalka was envisioning the slow disappearance of his notes in white on white. In a sense, he approached light. He calculated that he would reach that stage at 7,777,777. He never met his declared goal to “get up to the white on white and still be alive."
It is difficult to envision a life made up of numbers. Although Opalka’s dedication to his project was impressive, it is sad to imagine an artist in his studio recording the steadily vanishing hours, days and years of his life without explicit emotional overtones. Opalka was in his mid-30s when he embarked on his journey, and one wonders if he was ever tempted to break off his strict, yet self-inflicted engagement. “The Details” do not offer insight into his inner life, thoughts, or identity. Their content is not personal and yet, we are left with something incredibly intimate: the actual minutes of the artist’s lifetime. Opalka’s mission was to find a language that could reflect the inherent “problem that we are, and are about not to be.”
Opalka was born on August 27, 1931, in Hocquincourt, in northern France. His family returned to Poland in 1935, but was deported to Germany in 1940 after the Nazi invasion. After World War II, the Opalkas were able to return to Poland, their son by then a teenager. There, he briefly studied lithography at a graphics school before enrolling in the School of Art and Design in Lodz and earning a degree from the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw. It was in his studio in Warsaw that Opałka began “The Details,” each measuring the size of his doorframe. In 1977, he moved back to France and would spend the next decades between Teille, near Le Mans, and Venice, Italy. He died just days before his 80th birthday, near Rome, while traveling.
While Opalka’s work has been shown internationally for years, including at Documenta in Kassel in 1977, the Sao Paolo Bienal in1987, and the Venice Biennale in 1995 and 2003, it never received the widespread recognition it deserves. In the United States, he remains little known at best. In his uncompromising devotion to a systematic art practice, Opalka relates to such artists as Daniel Buren, On Kawara, and Hanne Darboven. All of these conceptual oeuvres take time to explore. Today, when much of our reality is defined by frantic changes and a lack of attention span, Opalka’s mission seems a rather solitary planet.
His concept might be easy to grasp, but the amount of passion and fanaticism it takes to see something like this through is hard to fathom. More important, the danger of Opalka’s work is that people think of it only as concept-driven. In fact, his paintings are elegant and utterly enticing compositions. Their simplicity relates to Cy Twombly’s grey paintings or GroupZero, for example. Meanwhile their freehand aesthetic and notational character allude to schoolroom blackboards. Despite his intention to establish neutral grounds, Opalka’s lists of numbers become mysterious codes and rhythmic patterns that seem to point as much to transformative ideals as Aboriginal sand paintings. These compositions are quiet, soothing, meaningful, moving, sad, and hopeful. They address the circle of life, the finality of life, the progression of life and the changes inherent in life. To Opalka, “The Details” signified a potent “metaphor for human existence.” They embody a poetic if not even Romantic contemplation of the subject despite being disguised by the skeleton of a scientific formula.
Stephanie Buhmann is a freelance writer based in New York. Her articles and interviews with artists have been published by various art magazines. She is a contributing editor for Artcritical.com.