France 1931 – Italy 2011
1967-71 Description: detail 868,149-893,746
Materials & Technique: paintings, synthetic polymer paint on canvas
In 1965, I his studio in Warsaw, Opalka began painting a process of counting - from one to infinity. Starting in the top left-hand corner of the canvas and finishing in the bottom right-hand corner, the tiny numbers are painted in horizontal rows. Each new canvas, which the artist calls a 'detail', takes up counting where the last left off. Each 'detail' is the same size (196 x 135 cm), the dimension of his studio door in Warsaw. All details have the same title, 1965/1-00; the idea does not date although the artist has pledged his life to its execution: 'All my work is a single thing, the description from number one to infinity. A single thing, a single life.'1
Over the years there have been some changes to the ritual. In Opalka's first details he painted white numbers onto a black background. In 1968 he changed to a grey background 'because its not a symbolic colour, nor an emotional one',2 and in 1972 he decided he would gradually lighten this grey background by adding 1 per cent more white to the ground with each passing detail. He expects to be painting virtually in white on white by the time he reaches 7 777 777, about a decade away at the current rate: 'My objective is to get up to the white on white and still be alive.'3
In 1968 Opalka introduced a tape recorder, speaking each number into the microphone as he paints it, and he also began photographing himself standing before the canvas after each day's work, a ritual bookkeeping of time passing. The process is endless, but measured against its goal - infinity - it is as naught: 'the problem is that we are, and are about not to be'.4
Michael Lloyd & Michael Desmond European and American Paintings and Sculptures 1870-1970 in the Australian National Gallery 1992 p.356.
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra