Roman Opałka

Roman Opalka, Opalka 1965/1–∞

The last Détail by Roman Opalka

“Like a mountaineer, stage by stage I climb the rock face of a high mountain from whose summit I hope to discover an unlimited horizon of endless white. I want to reach this place in order to stay there forever.”1

For almost five decades Roman Opałka followed this path, starting from a black canvas, a tumbler of white paint in his left hand and a brush in his right. “Shaking with excitement in view of the madness of such an undertaking, I dipped the brush into the tumbler, slowly lifted my arm and with a trembling hand […] made the 1 as the first sign in the top left-hand corner, right on the edge of the canvas” (Opałka, p. 18). 

In 1965 Opałka made the decision to devote his life to a single great work: OPAŁKA 1965/1–∞. Line by line, progressing from left to right and from top to bottom, he painted the number 1 into infinity. From Détail to Détail (the title he gave to the individual paintings), he lightened by 1 per cent of white the grounding of his canvases, which always had the same format of 196 by 135 cm. 

Opałka’s works can be viewed in two ways: as a purely aesthetic phenomenon or as a conceptual elaboration in the intellectual dimension. The first point of view places Opałka’s work in the context of the 1960s when structure and monochromy were standard principles shaping a work: like many other artists, Opałka was driven to develop something completely new; he, too, considered giving up the painted surface of the “pictorial” object, 

The rejection of a representative function, of classic principles of composition in the broadest sense, and the associated search for anonymous methods of making a work had led to a completely new painterly language. Most artists restricted themselves to a single or a few colours which they applied mostly with the aid of a semi-mechanical procedure based on the repetition of uniform movements in which the individual stepped far into the background. The organisational form of the surfaces that came out of this process could be understood in terms of “structure” or the principle of “seriality”. Whereas a composition is characterised by the difference and hierarchy of elements constituting a static whole, here the individual element does not have any autonomous significance; it is related to its neighbouring element or to the structure in its totality. Opałka’s regular dipping of the brush into white paint differentiates the surfaces of his paintings into lighter and increasingly darker elements. The chromatic swelling and fading thus attained lends the works a dynamic, energetic quality. The viewer’s eye jumps between the elements of different lightness so that the quick transition between the hardly differing structural units gives rise to the impression of movement. The individual numerals become visually active elements: the numbers – i.e. something that is formed and consciously shaped – appear here on an equal footing with the painting’s ground, the in-between, silence and standstill. With infinity, finally, a total sublation of thinking in opposites results: there is no longer any limit between the artistic gesture and the painting’s ground; what remains is pure white. 

The rhythmic quality visualised in the painting through which the flow of time is manifested is made especially apparent by the tape-recordings of Opałka’s voice done in parallel to the paintings’ making: the artist speaks each individual number he paints in his mother tongue, Polish. 

While most artists, initially proceeding from the monochrome surface, in the course of time went back to structuring their paintings, Opałka’s concept specified the opposite path: with each new canvas, he got closer – purely visually, mind you – to monochromy without changing his way of working. For Opałka, structure and monochromy are thus not to be conceived of as an intentional artistic positing but rather as a consequence of his work, as a consequence of the advancing of time, of his own lifetime. As distinct from Yves Klein, for instance, who can be regarded as the main representative of monochrome painting, Opałka’s works do not include any metaphysical dimensions but instead embody a strong rationality. Viewed close up, each individual numeral can be discerned; from a distance, there is almost no way of guessing that the colouring of the painting’s surface consists of individual numeric elements. 

In Opałka’s work, too, as with many other artistic concepts of the 1960s, the phenomenon of immateriality plays a decisive role. The painting intended by Opałka does not end where the canvas or the substance shaped by him ceases but continues beyond the material boundaries. His paintings, too, are not “end products” but reveal themselves as a process: each individual canvas is part of a whole with an indefinite end.

The central theme in Opałka’s work is the visualisation of time: his work is characterised by a routine carried out with extreme discipline which includes a photographic self-portrait always in the same, exactly defined pose at the end of each working day, an attempt on the part of the artist to record the physical changes occasioned by time. The exclusion of emotion – a characteristic feature of his way of working – is especially evident in these photographs. The most dramatic moment, according to Opałka, was the day his father died, when he had to fight against his feelings in order to “face this terrible shot” (p. 168).

Precisely because Opałka conceived of his artistic work as a task closely tied to the span of his own life, he could not allow any interruption, even in old age when he was beset by ailments. For him, life was defined as the concentrated continuation of the numeric series. Existence found its fulfilment in work on a single great painting, on an artwork based on an original inspiration which, however, did not include any potential for creative changes within itself but was characterised by extreme consistency and calculability. 

The course of time is clearly reflected in the paintings: they become paler and paler from canvas to canvas; the background and what Opałka created in painstaking, detailed work merge into a unity; the artistic gesture vanishes into infinity. The last paintings, in particular, mirror in a shocking way the tortures for the artist associated with his ongoing work. In his final period, the numbers put onto the canvas disappear into nothingness; what remains is the apparently monochrome canvas. Here, Opałka had come close to his ideal of a last painting “in white in white” that would be attained “in the moment that progression is brought to a standstill, leaving only the image of the presence of the visible in the invisible” (p. 7). 

What do Opałka's paintings want to communicate? The artist’s oeuvre is inseparably tied to his personality, but the strong sense of self-referentiality that is revealed is not the primary aim. His paintings are supposed to prompt the viewer to become aware of the dimension of time. “As in a diary, everyone can read the unfolding of his or her own existence in it. The photographs of my face are the image of the life of each individual viewer” (p. 169).

For Opałka, the confrontation with death played a central role, because “to comprehend time, you must conceive of death as a real dimension of life. The existence of being in itself is not yet everything, but rather being is only determined by the death it is lacking” (p. 175). His project, as defined by the artist himself, ends in its own incompleteness.2

“If the place could be chosen,” he once said, “each individual would want to die at home; as far as I’m concerned, it is only wise and sensible to refrain from long journeys or, if this isn’t possible, at least to keep the canvas on the easel constantly ‘open’, open like life, ready to face, through death, the gamble of completion defined by incompletion.” His last painting – which he was working on shortly before his death – marks the end point in the race against time, his own lifetime, and endlessness.3

Opałka’s trek into infinity found its completion in August 2011 with the number 5,607,249. 

Ulrike Schmitt-Voigts
Translated from the German by Dr Michael Eldred, artefact text & translation, Cologne


1 Roman Opałka, Anti-Sisyphos, Ostfildern, 1994, p. 68. 
2 Ibid. 
3 The painting, which in the meantime has been incorporated in the collection of Anna and Gerhard Lenz, shows just how far this marathon led. 


In the exhibition:

Roman Opałka
1965/1–∞, Détail 5 603 154–5 607 249, undated
Acrylic on canvas, plexiglass
196 × 135 cm
Sammlung Lenz, Austria

Roman Opałka
Self-portrait, undated
Black and white photography
33 × 24 cm
Sammlung Lenz, Austria