‘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’
A vast swathe of mottled grey composed of thousands of tiny numbers, 1965/1-8 detail- 1194480-1215202 is the product of one of art history’s most profoundly existential projects. In 1965, in a small studio in Warsaw, Roman Opalka committed his life to hand-painting the numbers from one to infinity. Across successive canvases, or ‘details’, the artist counted his way through his own existence. Starting in the top left hand corner, and finishing in the bottom right hand corner, Opalka painstakingly inscribed his digits in left-to-right horizontal rows. From a distance, his works appear as shimmering abstract compositions, swirling with painterly turmoil. Only up close is the obsessive rigor of their narrative revealed. With its numerical content falling within the second million, the present work can be dated to circa 1970. Its dark background testifies to this early date; from 1972 onwards Opalka would begin to vary the chromatic content of his works, with each ‘detail’ containing one percent more white than its predecessor. By submitting himself to numerical order, the artist sought to lay himself bare to the natural intervention of chaos and, in doing so, to shed light on the unknowable forces that guide every aspect of our being. He believed that it was only by reducing our activity to a singular process – such as counting – that we might truly begin to comprehend the invisible machinations of the universe. Opalka was fascinated by the dualisms that emerged from his method. Despite the interminable nature of his project, each canvas was nonetheless a definitive entity, with its own beginning and end. Despite never once repeating itself – in numerical terms, at least – the series was fundamentally grounded in repetitive action. For Opalka, such contradictions were part and parcel of the greatest paradox of all: that life can only be defined through death.
Speaking of the project’s inception, Opalka would later explain how ‘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). Over time, Opalka began to introduce a number of additional strands to his daily labour. From 1968 onwards, certain details were accompanied by passport-style photographs of himself taken before and after the day’s work, thereby documenting the increasing signs of mortality upon his physical appearance. The artist also began speaking numbers into a microphone as he painted, thus providing an audible record of his process. As his canvases become paler and paler, Opalka eagerly anticipated the day when the first number would be painted white on white: 7,777,777, according to his calculations. Sadly, the artist would never live to see this moment: the final number he painted was 5,607,249 on 6 August 2011 – the day of his death. In an oeuvre devoted to exploring the mystery of the inevitable, there is a poetry to Opalka’s vision that transcends numerical abstraction. It is ‘the finite defined by the nonfinite’: death defined by the possibility of eternity. In the face of the incomprehensible, his slow but steady numerical progressions offer a peaceful constancy: a sense that there is the potential, even if not the means, to keep going forever.