‘I took my body, my length, my existence as I have often said, as a sort of pictorial sacrifice and the essence, the embodiment of this procedure, creates a work much the same as we all create works with our lives. Every time that I add a number, everything changes. It is a sort of journey, if you will, where the steps are conscious each and every time, each step adds to the others, the weight of the duration of all these steps that you have lived’
‘In my attitude, which constitutes a program for my lifetime, progression registers the process of work, documents and defines time.
Only one date appears, 1965, the date when the first “Detail” came into being, followed by the sign of infinity, as well as the first and last number of the given “detail.” I am counting progressively from one to infinity, on “details” of the same format (“voyage notes” excluded), by hand, with a brush, with white paint on a grey background, with the assumption that the background of each successive detail will have 1 more white than the “detail” before it. In connection with this, I anticipate the arrival of the moment when “details” will be identified in white on white. Every “detail” is accompanied by a phonetic registration on a tape recorder and a photographic documentation of my face’
From a distance, Roman Opalka’s 1965/1-8, Detail- 4776969-4795472 confronts the viewer as a swathe of shimmering grey, a veritable constellation of oscillating hues and subtle monochromatic tones. As we approach the canvas, however, we begin to discern a series of numbers, each painstakingly rendered in white paint on a dark background, traversing the canvas from left to right in unfaltering numerical progression. The realisation that the work’s seemingly iridescent surface is in fact the product of an almost obsessive meditation on order speaks directly to the founding principles of Opalka’s artistic practice. In 1965, in a small studio in Warsaw, Opalka committed his life to painting, by hand, the numbers from one to infinity. In doing so, he aspired to create a vehicle through which we might begin to comprehend the vast complexities of human existence. Acquired directly from the artist, the present work has been held in the same private collection since its creation in 1992.
Driven by a frustration towards contemporary artistic trends grounded in chance, automatism and experimentation, Opalka imposed strict creative limits upon his work with the hope of laying himself bare to the natural intervention of chaos. Indeed, he believed that it was only by reducing our activity to a singular process - such as counting - that we might truly begin to glimpse something of the external forces that guide our existence. As such, numerical errors in the series were not decried as imperfections but rather enshrined as outstanding moments of clarity within a thesis on the nature of logic. Opalka was consequently fascinated by the dualisms that emerged from his method: the fact that each canvas constitutes a definitive entity within a never-ending project; the visual repetitiveness of a work which, numerically speaking, repeats nothing. For Opalka, the work’s ability to manifest such contradictions resonated with his own existential belief that life can only be defined through the absence of death. From 1968, Opalka’s practice of photographing himself before and after each day’s work provides a poignantly concrete counterpoint to this philosophical concept, documenting the increasing signs of mortality upon the artist himself.
From 1972 Opalka introduced a system whereby each canvas contained one percent more white than its predecessor. Numerical progression thus entwined with chromatic process, and Opalka’s writings began to anticipate the day when the first number would be painted in white on white – 7,777,777, according to his calculations. In the present work, Opalka is over half way towards this apotheosis – one that he would unfortunately never live to see. By this point, however, Opalka had achieved the particular shade of grey idealised throughout his career as the ultimate universal tone – the point of neutrality between the extremes of black and white. Speaking of his practice in 1994, Opalka explained ‘I took my body, my length, my existence as I have often said, as a sort of pictorial sacrifice and the essence, the embodiment of this procedure, creates a work much the same as we all create works with our lives. Every time that I add a number, everything changes. It is a sort of journey, if you will, where the steps are conscious each and every time, each step adds to the others, the weight of the duration of all these steps that you have lived’ (R. Opalka, interview for 3 France, 1994). In an oeuvre devoted to exploring the mystery of the inevitable, there is a poetry to Opalka’s vision that transcends numerical abstraction and radiates a profound sense of humanity – of peace, perhaps, in the face of the incomprehensible.